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

November 5, 2013 2 comments

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.

 

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Categories: Reviews, Sports, Television

Ray Emery and the Entwined Deficiencies of Hockey’s “Code” and NHL Discipline

November 2, 2013 1 comment

In the third period of last night’s NHL game between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, moments after the Caps had gone up 7-0 over the woeful Flyers (the Oilers have a bad record, but they’re not that bad), some predictable violence ensued. “The Code” of hockey, you see, seems to stipulate that in the event of a lopsided loss, the losing team must show that they won’t be pushed around on the ice as they have been on the scoreboard by engaging in reckless violence outside of the accepted limits of the usual game.

This is part and parcel of the increasingly absurd justifications for violence in the sport favoured by traditionalists, many of which now stem directly from little more than hurt feelings. The recent inevitability of such rough stuff in a blowout loss has made watching such games into a queasy experience for fans not impressed by hockey’s extraneous violence. Fans of the the losing team, in particular, have it especially hard. Not only must those fans witness their team embarrassed in the final score, they must also watch them humiliate themselves with thuggery (although some fans, especially those in Philadelphia last night, were irrationally excited by the punching).

Situations like last night’s are partly a consequence of the general meaningless of score differential in the NHL’s standings structure. If, like in many major European football leagues, goal differential was a primary tiebreaker in the standings at season’s end, running up the score in a lopsided game would have a tangible point, rather than feel like an unsportsmanlike slight by the stampeding victors. Win totals tend to separate deadlocked teams well enough (and with only playoff spots at stake and no relegation in the league, sorting of basement-dwellers is less vital than in, say, the Premier League), but making goal differential at least a secondary tiebreak factor could have some effect at least.

The debate over evading such incidents will be muted, however, when compared to the already-vehement division over the actions of Flyers goaltender Ray Emery in the midst of the wild line brawl that followed the seventh Capitals goal. With each team’s skaters pairing off into fighting duos, Emery skated the length of the ice to challenge Caps goalie Braden Holtby to fisticuffs. Holtby clearly wanted no part of Emery (as the video below demonstrates). Declining a fight is viewed with disdain by proponents of the Code’s hyper-masculine ideology, but the reply by the challenger is rarely to engage in violence nonetheless. Emery was not deterred by Holtby’s evident unwillingness, and attacked him anyway.

As can be plainly seen, Emery lays into Holtby, including some very dangerous punches to the back of the head. It’s a very uneven bout as hockey fights go, and bluff Code-upholders would doubtlessly declare that if Holtby wasn’t such a wuss (if he “defended” himself, as Emery claimed after the game that he gave him an opportunity to do), it wouldn’t have been so bad. But as bad it was, and what made it worse was referee Francois St. Laurent standing by, hands literally on hips, doing nothing to stop it and even waving away Holtby’s Capitals teammate Michael Latta when he attempted to intervene. The Code allows an alarming assault by one player on another, but NHL rules doesn’t allow a third player to enter an established two-player fight. Dangerous actions like Emery’s are punished less strictly than any attempt to prevent them, which is not a ringing endorsement of the league’s ability (or willingness) to curb such incidents.

What this unflattering moment in the continued controversy over pro hockey’s on-ice violence demonstrates is the deficiency of the Code in effectively redressing perceived wrongs and resolving inter-team grievances. Ken Dryden discusses hockey violence in terms of Freudian transference and emotional release in his book The Game, but its uneasy collaboration with league disciplinary standards has proven insufficient in defusing tensions, only extending them, deferring them. Grudges and feuds are rarely resolved with further violence, only exacerbated. They calcify and cease to pain the aggrieved only with considerable time and fallow tensions, and even then can endure as niggling minor dissatisfactions. The Code will not allow this healing period to commence, with its focus on mob-like retribution (and it’s not like a Caps goon is going to fight Emery next time the teams meet, either). Resolution is left to the league’s disciplinary discretion, which is more up to the task but rarely wholly effective either.

This should particularly be the case in the Emery-Holtby incident. Can the NHL suspend a player for fighting another who did not want to fight and beating him badly? Not without setting a precedent that could be fatal for fighting in the sport (and cheers to that possibility, unlikely though it is). Indeed, the referee involved is more likely to be disciplined for his failure to protect Holtby from Emery, to properly manage a volatile situation. But St. Laurent himself was handcuffed by the rules he must uphold. He allowed the players to fight and kept Latta from being the third man in; this, by the letter of the NHL law, was his job. The Code and the Law, in this case, are at clear cross-purposes. And unless one or the other adjusts its shifting but absolute strictures, more black eyes like the one inflicted on the NHL last night in Philadelphia wait in the wings.

Categories: Culture, Sports