Pam Lambert
June 21, 2004 12:00 PM

As the 220 members of Gulliver Preparatory’s graduating class marched into Miami-Dade County Auditorium on June 2, there was no missing Sydney Simpson. If her tall, tawny good looks—evoking her murdered mother, Nicole Brown Simpson—didn’t draw attention to Sydney, her father certainly did. From his spot in the audience, the football Hall of Famer whooped it up as if celebrating a Super Bowl win. “O.J. was there hooting and hollering,” says Sam Burstyn, a Miami lawyer whose daughter Alana graduated that day. “He was sitting next to his son and cheering his daughter. It was really a beautiful thing to see.”

Simpson has been making a different sort of spectacle of himself in recent days. With the approach of the 10th anniversary of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole on June 12, O.J. gave several interviews to get his story out (see box). Acquitted of double murder at his ’95 criminal trial but found liable for the deaths of Nicole and Ron Goldman in the ’97 civil case, he told the Associated Press that he blamed the media “for convincing the American public I was guilty.” He admitted to FOX’s Greta Van Susteren that there are times he is angry at Nicole—because she isn’t around to help raise Sydney, now 18, and Justin, 15. And no, he told Katie Couric, over the course of a decade he has never, ever discussed the case with his kids. All the experts with whom he consulted, Simpson claimed, “say when the kids are ready to talk about it, they’ll talk about it. Thus far they haven’t.”

That strikes many other experts as downright bizarre. “The whole concept of waiting is a fascinating one—wait till when?” says Dr. Fay Van Der Kar-Levinson, an L.A. child psychologist. “If you’re looking at a parent who much of the world considers a murderer, and the murderer of your mother, when do you feel safe asking about that?” Says Dr. Wade Myers, M.D., chief of forensic psychiatry at the University of Florida: “It’s not something you necessarily want to rush kids into, but at some point you need to at least address their questions, their concerns, their fears. For a surviving parent to avoid the topic would be like ignoring a 500-lb. psychological gorilla in the corner.”

Some observers suggest Sydney may have been acting out her frustration at having no one to turn to one night in January 2003, when she called 911 accusing her father of being verbally abusive. “He tells me that he doesn’t f———love me and that of any of his kids, none of his kids make him miserable, except for me,” she sobbed to the 911 operator. “That’s not wrong? That’s not an abuse thing?” Simpson, however, downplayed the incident. “It was a typical teenage girl thing,” he told PEOPLE. “The 911 call—if that’s the worst thing that happens between me and my kids this year, I am going to be one ecstatic man, one satisfied father.”

Though the police who came to the family’s home took no action, the incident, which O.J. blamed on his attempts to settle an argument between Sydney and her half brother Jason, 34, certainly raised questions about his parental abilities. So have his repeated brushes with the law, including at least three calls to police regarding disputes with his sometime girlfriend Christie Prody, 29. (No charges were filed.) Then there was his 2001 trial on charges of battery and auto burglary stemming from a road-rage incident. (Simpson was acquitted.)

Despite such flare-ups, O.J. says that Sydney and Justin are doing just fine. “It bothers me when people say ‘those poor kids,’ ” Simpson, 56, told People last year (he declined recent requests for an interview). “I’d put my teenage kids against any two teenage kids in the country.” Even some of his harshest critics agree—such as Nicole’s sister Denise, 46, who doesn’t hesitate to call her ex-brother-in-law “evil.” (Brown sees her niece and nephew during their twice-yearly visits with her parents in Monarch Bay, Calif., once at Christmas and a second, longer, stay during the summer, when the family traditionally celebrates Justin’s Aug. 6 birthday.) Sydney and Justin, she says, “have turned into really strong, smart and good-looking kids. They’re doing great.”

Though some parents at the $17,000-a-year Gulliver Prep were initially uneasy at the thought of having their kids play at the home of an accused murderer, since Sydney and Justin moved to the Miami area in 2000, they’ve been welcomed warmly. “When I first met her, I was amazed to see how normal she was, considering all that Sydney’s been through,” says the mother of one student, who asked not to be named. Simpson says his home has become a magnet for Sydney’s and Justin’s friends. “My house on a daily basis is inundated with kids,” he told PEOPLE last year.

Following the move to the Miami area, O.J. has become a very familiar face at Gulliver. Simpson “is very supportive of both of the children and goes to all of the athletic events,” says Patrick Snay, the school’s headmaster. “He’s a regular in the stands.” Many students ask Sydney for her father’s autograph, according to classmate Eddie Garza, 18.

Family and friends describe Sydney, who starts Boston University this fall, as a top student, a talented volleyball player and an independent thinker. “When you talk to her, you’re struck by the breadth of her perspective and her self-confidence, her obvious intelligence,” says Burstyn. Observes Garza, who sometimes shared a lunch table with her: “Sydney was just not a girl you messed with. She had no problem standing up to a boy.”

Or to her father. Simpson admitted that increasingly he seeks advice on her teen growing pains and volatile emotions from Nicole’s mother, Juditha, or his older daughter Arnelle, 35, a Los Angeles clothing designer. (Sydney’s half brother Jason, a sous-chef at the Miami Four Seasons, continues to live in the two-bedroom family guesthouse.) “Sigmund Freud said, ‘What do girls want?'” Simpson said. “I sure don’t know what a teenage girl wants—besides a car, money and clothes.” Sometimes he’ll call his own older sister, Shirley Baker, 60, to whom both children, especially Sydney, occasionally turn for help. “I think my daughter sometimes feels that the only person that, uh, has authority over me is my sister,” he told Van Susteren. “So sometimes she’ll sic my sister on me.”

Simpson’s relationship with his son seems less complicated. Justin, a 6’2″ football, basketball and lacrosse star, appears to have inherited his father’s looks and athletic gifts. “Justin has a little more diplomacy; that probably speaks for why he is so popular in school,” Simpson said last year. “On a personal basis, he’s one of my favorites,” says headmaster Snay. “Justin is effervescent. He’s just a neat kid.”

According to Simpson, the need to save for his children’s college fund has led him to abandon the hunt for “the real killer” of their mother and Ron Goldman. “I no longer have the money to pay to follow up these leads,” he told the AP. Nonsense, says Denise Brown, who complains Simpson wants to cover only one-third of Sydney’s tuition, room and board, which total $40,000 a year. “The rest has to come out of the money Nicole left to Sydney,” she says. “He gets $25,000 a month from his pensions—why can’t he pay her tuition?” Simpson’s lawyer Yale Galanter responds: “These are private matters that should be kept within the family.” Brown also criticizes Simpson’s plan to accompany Sydney to Boston to help her settle in. “I hope my mom talks him out of it,” she says. “I wish he’d just let Sydney live her own life.”

For now, though, Simpson remains a key part of that life, a fact with which Denise and the rest of the Browns have made a difficult peace. “You have to accept what you cannot change, and this is one of those things,” says Nicole’s sister Tanya, 34. “You have to make it work for the kids.

Pam Lambert. Siobhan Morrissey in Miami and Lorenzo Benet and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

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