Home > Reviews, Sports, Television > Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #6 – No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #6 – No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

On February 14, 1993, a violent altercation occurred at bowling alley in Hampton, Virginia. Described as an all-out brawl, it involved white and black Hamptonians, racial overtones and reckless chair-throwing, as well as some injuries. More importantly, however, it involved a junior from Hampton’s Bethel High School who also happened to be one of the best high school basketball players in the United States: Allen Iverson.

The 17-year-old Iverson, already an athletic phenom who had led Bethel to state titles in basketball and football, was charged and convicted as an adult and, despite outrage from the city’s African-American community and conflicting versions of the events, was sentenced by a judge to a 15-year sentence, with 10 years suspended. Iverson only served four months before being granted clemency, and the state court of appeals later overturned the conviction due to lack of evidence. But the case affixed a thuggish reputation to the swaggering Iverson that stuck to him through his notable professional career, and left deep scars of resentment in his hometown.

These events and their implications for the city of Hampton are explored in a documentary feature directed by Steve James. The filmmaker behind the seminal basketball documentary Hoop Dreams as well as the more recent The Interrupters, James hails from Hampton, and attended and played ball at Bethel’s rival, Hampton High School. No Crossover therefore takes on a personal angle, as James attempts to fathom the racial and class divisions exposed by the Iverson case in his hometown. The title, a reference to Iverson’s mastery of the swift dribbling move that confounded many a defender, makes it clear that athletic prowess alone was insufficient in allowing Iverson to overcome deep structural prejudices in Peninsular Virginia society.

Although James interviews a legion of locals with some connection to the incident, the trial, or Allen Iverson’s early life and burgeoning sports career, he can’t get near the man himself. Indeed, only one other person who was at the bowling alley that night appears on camera, and he is one of the other three young men who was prosecuted for his part in the melee and says curiously little about what actually happened. But whether Iverson and his fellow accused did what it was claimed that they did or not isn’t really the point of No Crossover. The point James’ film makes instead, subtly but persistently, is that in American society, racial prejudice readily rushes in to fill the void left by the dearth of factual certainties.

No Crossover highlights not only the obvious manifestations of this dividing line, but its subtler shadings as well. Faced with a lack of solid evidence that Iverson was even inside the bowling alley when the chairs started flying (he and a friend both claim that he was hustled out when things got heated, his athletic future paramount in their minds), the state used the pack-aggression confusion to its prosecutionary advantage. Iverson and his three friends were charged under an obscure and rarely-used Virginia statute, a felony charge of maiming by mob. The irony that this law was originally passed with an eye to combat the extra-legal discriminatory practice of lynching is certainly not missed by Hampton’s African-American leaders. It is likewise not lost on any onscreen observer that the Governor of Virginia who granted Iverson clemency was the first African-American elected to a governor’s post in the country, and that he was near the end of his term when he signed the order. That noted, James also cannot resist including a redemptive mentor-student relationship between Iverson and a local white female tutor who aided him in improving his academic standing enough post-conviction to earn a spot at a top university (Georgetown, as it turned out).

It should not be surprising to anyone who followed the NBA through the decade plus in which Allen Iverson was one of the league’s best-known and most polarizing figures that his vaunted “attitude” was ruffling the white establishment’s pristine feathers (and sometimes the black establishment’s as well) before he could even vote. Though he appears fairly clean-cut with a conservative early-90s fade hairdo and a modest gold necklace in No Crossover‘s archival video of his Bethel playing days, Iverson later became the avatar of street-level hip-hop culture and post-modern black masculinity in the world’s best basketball league.

His hair in cornrows, his arms covered with tattoos, teetering on the edge of an explosive tantrum at nearly every moment, launching himself at tenacious opposing defenses with a volatility and controlled recklessness that could be exhilirating and even transgressive, Allen Iverson was a star, no doubt. But his stardom was perceived very differently by black and white audiences, each of which read his street-wise “thug” image (very much burnished by his conviction and imprisonment) from diametrically opposed perspectives.

This gap in perception was succinctly exemplified in his most infamous off-court moment, a press conference rant in which he derisively repeated the word “practice” twenty times to demonstrate his disdain for the sports media’s reverence for an activity that, in his mind, didn’t even count. It was a shot across the bow of the sort of meaningless structures that many young (and some older) African-Americans felt that White America was fond of erecting and that stood between them and the success of white elites. Those who shared these grievances identified with his defiance. Meanwhile, sports media and mainstream fans (many of them white) tut-tutted Iverson’s “bad attitude”, viewing his petulant objections to the focus on his poor practice attendance as proof of his character flaws, and by extension the character flaws of a generation of young black men whose modes of expression they found to be unfamiliar and even frightening.

Iverson officially retired from pro ball in a ceremony in Philadelphia, where he starred for the Sixers, only last week, after last playing in Turkey more than a year ago. His number will be retired by the team in March, a commemorative appreciation that demonstrates how time and memory serve to bevil down sharper edges. James features plenty of footage in his film of the older Iverson mouthing bromides about moving on, staying strong, and believing in himself after his brush with the law as a teen, but also speculates that he harbours an understandable resentment against his hometown for what they put him through after giving Hampton so much of himself as a high school athlete. Ultimately, like so many irruptions of racial prejudice in American history, Allen Iverson’s story lacks a satisfying resolution or explanation. It even lacks a level of basic agreement about where the fault lies, or even if there is fault at all. What remains is a groundswell of low, simmering hostility, like a scalding steam rising from fissures that can neither be closed nor safely bridged.


Categories: Reviews, Sports, Television

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