Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Iverson smooths out the edges of its controversial, influential subject

Illustration for article titled Iverson smooths out the edges of its controversial, influential subject

When I was 13 years old, a kid growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, I wanted nothing more than to make my school’s basketball team. I remember practicing late into the night on the hoop in my driveway; free throws, layups, turn-around jumpers, everything. I didn’t have a ton of talent, but I figured if I worked hard enough to improve just the basics, that would show over the weeks to come and eventually help me when it came time for the team tryouts. More than those nights spent shooting around though, I remember holing up in the garage when it was too cold to play outside, practicing my crossover for hours on end because I wanted to do it just like Allen Iverson did. If you were a kid reaching adolescence in Canada in the late ’90s and early ’00s and you loved basketball, you probably loved two players: Vince Carter, the man who forever changed Canadian basketball fandom as a member of the Toronto Raptors, and Allen Iverson, the 6-foot guard from Georgetown who was a human highlight reel while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. It says something about Iverson’s massive star power that, in a suburb of Toronto, while Vince Carter was winning slam dunk competitions and changing the culture of basketball in Canada, Allen Iverson’s “#3” jerseys easily outnumbered any Carter jersey on the playground by a 3-to-1 ratio.

It’s that kind of influence, that kind of cultural prominence, that Showtime’s documentary Iverson fails to capture. There are sections of Iverson that certainly acknowledge the way that Iverson changed the culture of basketball; like no other star before, or even after him, Iverson challenged the stuffiness of the NBA by coming to the court covered in tattoos and forging a connection between basketball and hip-hop culture that stands to this day. The documentary’s most interesting aspects use Iverson’s trailblazing ways to interrogate larger issues of racism in sports and media. Scenes where Iverson is called a “thug” for wearing baggy clothes and chains off the court, rather than NBA-dictated suits, specifically strikes a chord in 2015 as media coverage of the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore continually use the word as a way to disparage black protesters.

Unfortunately, much of Iverson plays out like the documentary version of Iverson’s Wikipedia page, spending 90 minutes detailing everything from his pure athletic ability as a kid, to his high school days winning state championships in both basketball and football, all the way through to his run as scoring leader in the NBA and subsequent downfall into free agent purgatory and a short stint playing basketball in Turkey. Iverson certainly chronicles the turbulent life of the point guard with great attention to personal detail, but its adherence to the standard “started from the bottom” narrative is disappointing; despite focusing on one of basketball’s most complicated and influential figures, the documentary cobbles together a familiar narrative, telling a story in broad strokes rather than zeroing in on what made Iverson such a revered figure among his peers and NBA fans. Here’s a guy with a compelling story, one that intersects with issues of institutional racism, the prison industrial complex, and the toxicity of sports media, and all Iverson can muster is a retelling of facts that can be drawn from a handful of other documentaries and stories published about the point guard over the years.

For instance, a significant portion of Iverson focuses on a 1993 incident where Iverson and some friends were at a bowling alley when a racially charged brawl broke out. Despite a number of participants in the fight, Iverson, being a local high school basketball and football star, became the focus of criminal charges. Iverson, along with three of his friends, were convicted on the adult felony charge (despite being 17 years old at the time of the incident; 18 years old when he was tried) of maiming by mob, a practically unheard of charge, the severity of which clearly outweighed the crime. With that charge, Iverson was sentenced to 15 years in prison with 10 of those years suspended. After four months in prison and a public outcry about the racism inherent in the charge, Iverson was granted clemency by Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder. While this incident is certainly integral to the story of Iverson and his road to the NBA, therefore justifying its inclusion here, it’s territory that’s been covered more insightfully and in-depth in Steve James’ 30 For 30 documentary No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson. Where No Crossover dives deep into the cultural implications of that trial, using Iverson’s case to comment on larger issues of racism and the persecution of black youth in the United States, Iverson treats the trial like just another obstacle that he had to overcome on his way to playing professional basketball. Iverson may include clips pulled from the time of the trial that mention the blatant racism, but the documentary never engages with those clips in a meaningful way.

Ultimately, the overarching issue with Iverson is that it fails to capture what was unique about Iverson or what he meant to the NBA and basketball culture in general. Instead, the film employs a talking-head formula, along with many interviews with Iverson himself, resulting in a narrative that feels just like any other sports documentary. Iverson fails to look beyond its subject, or rather, to use its subject to bring a singular perspective to the glossed-over issues of racism in sports and the pressure the media and fans put on athletes to be beacons of morality and hard work. Iverson is a run-of-the-mill documentary that presents an all-too-familiar sports narrative, and by doing so, ends up smoothing out the edges of its controversial, influential, and captivating subject.