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O.J. Simpson’s conflicting, curious Las Vegas life

Updated April 11, 2024 - 2:33 pm

I met O.J. Simpson twice in Las Vegas. I didn’t know how to handle the first meeting. I was similarly thrown off by the second.

Simpson, who died of cancer at age 76 on Wednesday in Las Vegas, attended the Aviators opener at Las Vegas Ballpark in 2019. He was at the bar, surrounded by a group of curious, selfie-seeking onlookers. I took a few shots of him being photographed. I worked my way to him, shook his hand, introduced myself and said, “I remember your last game at Candlestick Park, when the Niners beat Tampa Bay and the fans went nuts.”

“I am always a Bay Area guy,” he said.

Why I thought to bring up that game, I have no idea, though I did remember Simpson’s last season in San Francisco, and the victory over the Bucs. But to meet him, to exchange niceties, was disquieting.

A bartender asked if I wanted a photo with The Juice. I said, “No thanks, I’m here for baseball.” A dozen or so fans were waiting for that chance.

I later learned from Aviators GM Don Logan that Simpson had attended about a dozen Aviators games, mostly in the first season.

The baseball vet said of the fallen legend, “He was always very pleasant and the staff enjoyed having him at the bar because he was a generous tipper.”

Simpson golfed at Canyon Gate Country Club and Arroyo Golf Club, the public links at Red Rock Country Club, where for a time he reportedly lived in a rented estate. Officials at both clubs offered no comment about Simpson’s time on their courses or his death.

Simpson reportedly also resided for a couple of years at Canyon Gate Country Club up to about a year ago. He also reportedly spent time at Rhodes Ranch Golf Club, where his son, Jason, has had a home. Simpson often had breakfast at Ranch House Grille, where the staff essentially afforded him privacy.

Simpson also was a frequent visitor to Jing and Grape Street Wine Bar in Downtown Summerlin.

Grape Street founder and chef John McKibben said his bar was the first stop for Simpson when he was released on bail for his conviction in the Palace Station memorabilia robbery case in September 2007. “The staff was saying, ‘O.J. is out there!’ And I said, ‘What! Isn’t he locked up?’ ”

Simpson would become a regular at Grape Street, ordering a couple of Bombay Sapphire gin martinis and hobnobbing with guests.

“Obviously, there were some people who obviously didn’t like him and would say, ‘Ef him.’ But the majority of people wanted pictures with him and wanted to shake his hand,” McKibben said. “That’s how O.J. was; he liked the limelight. He had no problem meeting people.”

Simpson even chatted at length with McKibben’s mother, Judith, a big Bills fan who lived in Buffalo. “She couldn’t believe it,” McKibben said. “They wound up talking for two hours.” Simpson charmed the family by gifting them USC and Buffalo Bills jerseys.

Simpson was a lightning rod for attention on the Strip. In June 2021, he reached a settlement with the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, over a defamation lawsuit he filed in 2019 after media reports indicated the ex-gridiron great “was drunk and became disruptive” at the hotel-casino’s Clique bar on Nov. 8, 2017.

The final time I saw Simpson was a couple of years ago while having lunch with a friend at Grape Street. Simpson was standing at a high-top table near the bar, and repeatedly walking past our table near the doors leading to the patio.

Wearing a golf shirt and visor, Simpson was chatting energetically on his cellphone, walking in and out of the restaurant several times.

On his final pass he called over to us, “Sorry I keep coming and going like this.” Said by any regular patron, no big deal. But because it was O.J., you can’t forget.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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