wmthomas-sliderBy William Thomas

In the motorcade of public meltdowns involving professional athletes — Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius and now Alex Rodriguez — O.J. Simpson is still the marshal of that parade.

Simpson, who now looks like a bloated, jailhouse thug, has just won parole on a 33-year-prison term of which he has already served five years. The former superstar running back of the Buffalo Bills was convicted of kidnapping and robbery charges in an armed attempt to retrieve his own memorabilia from two Las Vegas sports collectors. The Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners claim he won’t be going free anytime soon but you know, “If they don’t commit, he’s out lickety-split.”

O.J. Simpson and my unruly but adorable cat Weggie will be forever linked in infamy. It was almost 20 years ago that I happened to be in Portugal on the day of “the chase.” I was in a bar the night before the departure for my Lisbon flight home when I called Carolyn, my sweet but unfocused cat-sitter to see how Weggie was doing.

From the moment my house sitter said hello, I knew something was wrong.

“Is Weggie okay?” I asked.

“Yeah, Weggie’s fine,” she said, breathlessly.” “But it looks like O.J. Simpson may have murdered his wife.” O.J. Simpson? Murder? His wife?

“Carolyn, I thought I told you. NO WILD PARTIES!”

“No, it’s in L.A. Some kind of car chase.”

I had asked only about the cat. “Well, is O.J. headed north to Wainfleet, for godsakes? Did he leave some kind of note? Did he mention Weggie by name?”

I know this cat can irritate just about anyone, but … O.J. Simpson? “Is this guy totally out of control or what?” I asked.

“Actually, he’s in a white Bronco on the San Diego Freeway,” she said. “I’m watching the chase on TV.”

“You’re watching the chase on TV?”

“Yeah,” she said. “They’re televising the chase live on all major networks.”

I thought for a moment. “You know that key I left? The one I said you should never use? The one that opens the liquor cabinet? Carolyn, you didn’t use that key, did you?”

“No, no. They’re chasing O.J. all over the L.A. freeways. It’s been on for about half an hour.”

“The chase has gone for half an hour?”

“Yeah, but they’re only going 40 miles an hour.”

I thought to myself, of course the chase could only go at 40 miles an hour. How else could the colour commentators have time to do their voiceover?

I was still confused, but I decided to take a shot. “Do you think O.J. knows that if he went faster, it would be a better chase and he’d actually have a greater chance of escaping?”

“Actually O.J.’s in the back seat with a gun.”

I’ve driven the freeways in L.A. That’s not so unusual. But the fact he’s steering and working the pedals from the back seat — well, that explains why the best he can do is 40 miles an hour. Now it was all starting to make sense.

“There must be like 20 cop cars chasing him,” she said.

I took another shot. “From what you know so far, do you think the cops realize if they went faster it would be a better chase and they’d have a greater chance of catching him?”

“There must be 20 helicopters chasing, too.”

“The cops are chasing him with helicopters?” I asked.

“No. The cops are chasing him in cars. The reporters are chasing him in helicopters.”

“At any time, have they cut away to Steven Spielberg sitting in a director’s chair with a megaphone?” I asked.

“No, but there’s people on the overpasses and they’re waving and cheering,” she said.

“Are you sure it’s not just an ad for Hertz?” I ventured.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “One commentator said O.J. might shoot himself right there in the back seat.”

Hey, I’ve written for television. If he kills himself, that’s the end of the chase scene right there.

“Listen, how’s Weggie?” I asked. And that’s when the line went dead. When I woke up the next morning, I thought maybe I’d dreamed the whole thing.

At the airport in Lisbon, I spotted a group of Canadians coming off the Canada 3000 plane that I was taking back. I approached a guy wearing a Blue Jays cap.

“How the Jays doing?” I asked.

“Awful!” he said. “Hey! Did you hear about O.J.?”

Lord, it was true, the chase, the cops, the live coverage, the …

“Uh, look,” I asked in a very low voice, “this may sound kind of silly, but, uh, there wasn’t a cat involved in that thing, was there?”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” he replied. “But there was something about a dog with blood on his paws.”

My lasting image of the O.J. trial was verdict day with hundreds of his supporters marching in front of the courthouse chanting about the mysterious glove: “If it doesn’t fit, they must acquit.”

Across the street a little man sat in a lawn chair with a sign that read: “If they acquit, they’re full of s**t.”