By Thomas Fields-Meyer
February 17, 2003 12:00 PM

The 911 caller was young, female—and sobbing. “I don’t want to be with my father,” she cried. “Can’t you do something about that? He tells me he doesn’t f—-‘ love me…. That’s not like an abuse thing?” The operator might have treated the Jan. 18 call as a typical domestic disturbance, but the parent in question was O.J. Simpson, and the Miami-Dade County police rushed five cruisers to the Miami-area home. Officers found Sydney Simpson, 17, distraught in her bedroom, explaining that she’d had an argument with her dad. Within minutes she had left, and O.J. stepped out to offer smiles and handshakes to the officers.

Later, Simpson dismissed the incident as a “nonevent,” a typical dispute between a parent and a teenager, explaining that Sydney was apparently feuding with half brother Jason, 32, who had recently moved in. “911 is not what you call when you have a disagreement in your household,” he told PEOPLE. “If that’s the worst thing that happens between me and my kids this year,” he adds, “I am going to be one satisfied father.”

Eight and a half years after their mother, Nicole Brown Simpson, was murdered, Sydney and brother Justin, 14, by most accounts have emerged as intact, well-adjusted teens. Their father still draws the wrong kind of attention—he was acquitted of battery in October 2001 for a road-rage incident, and six weeks later federal agents searched his home for the drug Ecstasy (and found nothing). But even Nicole’s sister Denise Brown, who makes no secret of her contempt for O.J., has nothing but praise for the children. “They’re well-adjusted, awesome kids,” says Brown. “They’ve come a long way.” That may be one of the few things Brown and O.J. agree on. Says he: “My two kids seem to be excelling, despite the distractions.”

Sydney Simpson was 8 and Justin 5 in June 1994, when their mother and her friend Ron Goldman were slashed to death outside her Los Angeles condominium. After their father’s arrest for the murders, they spent 30 months with Nicole’s parents, Lou and Juditha Brown, in Monarch Bay, Calif. But after Simpson’s acquittal—and before a $33.5 million civil judgment against him in 1997—a judge returned the children to O.J.’s custody. Two and a half years ago he moved the family to a $575,000 four-bedroom ranch house on two acres south of Miami. Home life has not always been tranquil. Police have received at least four calls regarding domestic disputes between O.J. and sometime girlfriend Christie Prody.

For the kids, though, Florida has offered a healthy new start. The move, Justin told The Miami Herald, was “probably one of the best things that happened in my life.” At Gulliver Academy, a prestigious Coral Gables private school, Justin took up football; he so excelled that in the eighth grade he was named the school’s top athlete. In the fall, as a 6’1″, 189-lb. ninth grader at Gulliver Prep, he played running back—his father’s position—on the junior varsity squad. “But his real game is basketball,” O.J. says of Justin.

Sydney, a Gulliver junior, has been a volleyball standout, playing middle-hitter. “She’s a very consistent server,” says cocaptain Sylvia Cardim. “She’ll hit a ball, and, ‘Oh my God, that was awesome!’ ” Though players from opposing teams are sometimes startled to see O.J. Simpson in the stands, her teammates are both protective and nonchalant. “We’re used to it,” says fellow captain Lauren Miller. “We don’t want Sydney or Justin to feel uncomfortable.”

Nor do their grandparents. Brown says her mother, Juditha, 72, calls or e-mails the Simpson kids almost daily—and, though she holds their father responsible for her daughter’s death, has contact with O.J. as well. “When I’ve had occasions where I’ve felt ill-equipped to deal with my daughter,” admits Simpson, “I don’t hesitate to phone Judy and get her take.” According to Brown, who is helping to develop a real-life crime series, Predators, and is considering a U.S. Senate bid, her mother says that ” ‘these kids have their lives in front of them. We need to make this the best it possibly can be.’ ”

Although Brown says her family generally avoids discussing the murders, they do make an effort to tell Sydney and Justin about Nicole. “Her kids were her life,” she says. “I don’t ever want them to forget that.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Siobhan Morrissey in Coral Gables and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles