Premieres tonight on ESPN, 8 p.m. ET
The central figure in Steve James’ exemplary 30 For 30 documentary No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson did not agree to be interviewed for the film. That would seem like a deal-killer—all the undercards, but no Main Event—but it’s oddly difficult to imagine what his presence would really add to the movie. There’s plenty of great footage of Iverson in the movie—some on his exploits as a football and basketball double-threat in high school, others candidly revealing interviews of the man himself—but his perspective on the incident that landed him in jail 17 years ago wouldn’t necessarily be any more valuable than that of someone else in the community. After all, this is The Trial Of Allen Iverson, and like other trials, the defendant doesn’t speak—and of course, he doesn’t have to speak for people to draw conclusions about him.
Of the many fascinating elements of James’ film—my favorite of the series, along with Winning Time and Muhammad And Larry, and perhaps the most in-depth and revelatory—is that Iverson the person isn’t the subject so much as Iverson the cultural flashpoint. That doesn’t mean that James doesn’t elucidate Iverson’s unique athletic ability—at his prime, few players were more electrifying—or dig into the thorny personality of the man himself, because otherwise no one would taken an interest in him at all. But The Trial Of Allen Iverson looks at him more as a phenomenon, a human inkblot whose polarizing effect on people often says more about them than it does about him. They see whatever they want to see, and that may or may not be the truth.
Airing just a week after new Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell recognized “Confederate History Month” without acknowledge a little sticking point called “slavery”—his official statement was modified later in the day after an uproar—the film reveals a state that’s still very strongly divided along racial lines. James shares Iverson’s hometown of Hampton, Virginia, and while he wasn’t present for the events depicted in the documentary—he was in Chicago shooting Hoop Dreams, the gold standard of sports docs—he returns to find that (a) residents remember what happened like it was yesterday and (b) their feelings, by and large, haven’t budged one iota. As James pointed out in my interview with him, the state where McDonnell’s statement was possible is the same one that elected the first black governor (Douglas Wilder, who incidentally, granted Iverson clemency on his way out the door) and helped win the election for Obama.
The incident in question: Back in February 1993, when Iverson was a junior at Bethel High School, he and his young black friends were involved in a melee with a group of older, white adults, allegedly over racial epithets spewed by the latter. Iverson specifically was accused of hitting a white woman over the head with a chair, and he and his buddies (but none of the white folks) were arrested. Stoked by passions that cut sharply along racial lines, the subsequent trial ended in a conviction that landed Iverson in jail, where he stayed for four months until the governor intervened. Surveillance footage of the brawl exists, but it’s a little like the Zapruder film: inconclusive yet more than enough to fuel conspiracy theorists of every stripe. (The Virginia Court of Appeals was unconvinced, and officially supported the defendant’s claim of insufficient evidence.)
Once a Hampton high-school basketball player in his own right—he’s joked that he averaged about 20 points less per game than Iverson—James has a great sense of his old community and a fair-minded impression of feelings on both sides. As with his excellent 2002 documentary Stevie, about his relationship with a troubled “Little Brother” in downstate Illinois during college, James puts himself in front of the camera, but not in an indulgent way and never to proselytize. (Viewers used to seeing ideological gasbags star in first-person docs will rightly find this film a revelation.) We can see the conflicted racial values embodied by James’ mother, who was once a nurse at a newly integrated high school yet didn’t have a charitable take on the Iverson matter. And though James himself doesn’t tip his hand, The Trial Of Allen Iverson isn’t entirely forgiving of Iverson’s actions then or at points during his time in the NBA spotlight.
Ultimately, The Trial Of Allen Iverson stakes out a seemingly impossible middle ground between the white and black communities, at least insofar as it gives equal voice to both sides and reveals the answers (and, well, The Answer) to be elusive and ambiguous. The film has the extraordinary quality of being simultaneously clarifying and murky, and that’s just great journalism on James’ part. He’s taken arguably the most polarizing figure in basketball over the past 15 years and lowered our collective temperature about him. And that’s no small achievement.
• Of all the conspiracy theories about Iverson, I’m most intrigued (and nearly convinced) by the one that finds his troubles with the white community linked to his decision to attend Bethel High School rather than Hampton, where James went to school. It’s always fascinating to see how powerful a role rooting interest can play in both demonizing and lionizing athletes who may not deserve either assignation. If you’re bitter about the city’s star athlete playing for a rival school, you’re likely to extend that malice to matters off the field/court. Thoughts?
• Apologies for not getting more specific about the people interviewed for the film. Truth be told, I saw it weeks ago and didn’t get a chance to watch it again before posting.
• I was aware of it at the time, but the one and only NBA game I attended this year happened to be Iverson’s last as a Sixer. It was here in Chicago, so Iverson fetched the expected boos when his name was announced. But I was struck by how many in the crowd, even Bulls partisans, brought signs and cheered for him louder than anyone else on the court. I am retroactively happy to be part of Iverson history (and I was happy at the time, too, because the Bulls walloped the Sixers that night).