Kardashian-Simpson Bond Stands Test of Time, Trouble

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since they met on a tennis court 25 years ago, Robert Kardashian has become one of O.J. Simpson's closest confidants. Now their relationship goes beyond close--Kardashian has become the link between the former football superstar charged with murder and the outside world, including his lawyers, the media and assorted friends and relatives.

It is Kardashian who talks to Simpson daily, appears in court during the week and makes jail visits on the weekends. It was Kardashian who read the farewell letter written by Simpson to a rapt nationwide television audience almost three weeks ago and it was Kardashian who recently reactivated his law license to help defend Simpson, free of charge.

"I know O.J. better than anyone on the legal team," Kardashian, 50, said in an interview. "There are so many things I know about his personality. My job is really strategy and liaison between the lawyers and O.J."

Kardashian leapt into public attention June 17, when Simpson bolted from Kardashian's Encino home just as the football great was to surrender to police on charges of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. Later that day, Kardashian appeared on national television to read the rambling and emotionally charged letter from Simpson. As day turned into evening, and Simpson and former teammate Al Cowlings were leading authorities on a 60-mile pursuit, Kardashian tried to talk Simpson in by cellular phone.

Kardashian said his jailhouse visits, which have become staples of weekend television coverage of the case, are wrenching. "I've never been to a jail before. It's extremely depressing. It makes me sick every time I go down there," Kardashian said. "We can't have any physical contact. I want to hug him, I want to show him that I care. It's very difficult.

"We're going 20 hours a day on this," Kardashian said. "But he's going through worse hell than I am. I can't complain. I sleep in a real bed at night. Look where he's sleeping . . . he's in a cage."

In happier times, the two men shared many things: college ties, enjoyment of a jet-set lifestyle, business ventures, family fun.

Both have an intense commitment to USC. Though they were not there at the same time, they frequently attended alumni events and contributed to the school. They even opened a fashion boutique on the campus--called jag O.J.--which sold high-priced jeans and other clothes for a couple of years in the late 1970s.

Kardashian, a second-generation Los Angeles resident who grew up in Baldwin Hills, followed in his older brother's footsteps to USC, which he attended from 1962 to 1966. Like his brother, Kardashian served as the student football team manager, although he did not cross paths with Simpson, who attended USC from 1967 to 1969.

Upon graduation, Kardashian went to the University of San Diego, where he received a law degree in 1969. His brother, Tom, says Robert went to law school to avoid going into the meatpacking business the Kardashian family owned.

But law did not hold much interest for Kardashian; he essentially stopped practicing in the late 1970s, preferring to concentrate on his start-up businesses and investments.

Before Simpson's court hearings, Kardashian had not been inside a courtroom for 20 years. At the request of Simpson's lead attorney, Robert L. Shapiro, Kardashian reactivated his license to practice law, which had become inactive three years ago.

Kardashian and Simpson shared a social life that spanned decades, including tennis and golf games, fancy restaurants, and trips to Aspen, Mexico and New York City.

Simpson lived with Kardashian and his brother in Beverly Hills during an off-season from the Buffalo Bills in the '70s. Friends say the Deep Canyon house was a true bachelor's pad--complete with frequent parties and social events.

Kardashian met his future wife, Chris Houghton, in 1978 when she was 17. Kardashian was with Simpson when he met Nicole Brown, then 18, at the Daisy nightclub in Beverly Hills in 1977. Simpson was an usher at Kardashian's wedding.

After marriage, the Kardashian and Simpson families grew--and grew closer.

With their wives and children, the men traveled together, spending Christmases in Aspen, where Kardashian would dress up as Santa Claus. The two couples dined together frequently, went to nightclubs and had a wide circle of friends that included celebrities from the sports and entertainment worlds.

Both went through painful divorces in the early 1990s. (After the Kardashians' divorce, Chris Kardashian married Olympic medalist Bruce Jenner.) Kardashian said that he believed it was best for Simpson to be away from Nicole and that he advised Simpson not to get back together with her.

"I was torn, but I wanted him to get on with his life," Kardashian said. "I thought that would be better for him.

"He always did what he wanted to do," Kardashian said. "But he asked my opinion. I gave him both sides of the issue. I never said, 'Don't do this, do this.' That's not how we operate."

Currently, Kardashian lives in a spacious, two-story Mandalay Drive home in the Encino hills where his fiancee, Denice Shakarian-Halicki, regularly stays. He says wedding plans now are on hold as the legal proceedings against Simpson unfold. Shakarian-Halicki regularly appears in the courtroom with Kardashian.

In business, Kardashian's first big success came in 1973. He joined his brother and another investor, Robert Wilson, to found a trade magazine called Radio & Records. When the publication was sold in 1979, it went for about $12.5 million. Kardashian made about $3 million on the deal.

Other investments have not gone as well. "Some click, some don't," said George Mason, the senior managing director of Bear Stearns & Co., who some consider to be Kardashian's mentor. "I think he's more entrepreneurial. He's not the kind who wants to be chained to a desk and take a briefcase full of work home with him every night."

Irving Azoff, the owner of Giant Records who worked with Kardashian in the radio syndication division at MCA, said Kardashian is an even-tempered businessman who has had some good ideas. "Some have and some haven't been as successful," Azoff said. "But he's real dependable and honest and quite an entrepreneur."

With Simpson and another investor, Joe Leach, Kardashian started the USC boutique and a corporation called Juice Inc., which established one of the first frozen yogurt shops in Westwood Village, first called Joy, then Forty Carats. The group sold the store after a couple of years.

In the 1980s, Kardashian and Simpson also invested in a music video business called Concert Cinema, which would screen music videos before the feature film in theaters. But the yearlong enterprise became expensive and neither Simpson nor Kardashian made money on it.

Currently, Kardashian is running two companies out of his home. Movie Tunes supplies movie theaters with music to play and between films, and Hit Tunes offers movie theaters vending machines with which moviegoers to buy and listen to compact discs.

His friends and family say they are worried about Kardashian. They say he is spending all his time either with Simpson, 46, or with the lawyers who are defending him. "This is very, very traumatic for all of us," said Tom Kardashian, who is four years older than his brother. "It's got to be a real strain for him. I want him to lead a normal life and not to be distraught over where O.J. is now."

Larry Kraines, who has known Kardashian for 30 years, since they attended Dorsey High School together, said he is not surprised at the role his schoolmate is playing in the Simpson saga.

"He doesn't have any personal motives--he believes O.J.'s 100% innocent," said Kraines. "I think he truly believes there's a friend in need . . . and it does not surprise me that Bob's that type of person. He's not looking to be central stage. He's looking for the tragedy to turn out however well it can for his friend."

One friend said that as soon as Kardashian heard about the double murders, he was "banging on O.J.'s door to get in and help him."

Another said that it was not uncommon for Kardashian--even before the murder investigation--to cancel engagements and make time for Simpson.

At a surprise party held at a San Pedro restaurant for Kardashian's 50th birthday in February, Simpson presented his friend with an autographed football jersey. A friend said the event and the gift meant a great deal to Kardashian.

"He loved the lifestyle--the sports, the restaurants, the scene," said the friend.

For his part, Kardashian says he and Simpson have developed a bond that few people share.

But now Kardashian says he is having trouble seeing his friend in jail. "He's having a very difficult time. He's in a cage--seven by nine feet. He's innocent until proven guilty and sitting in a cage. . . . It's kind of surreal for me."

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