The Trial of Allen Iverson

AN ESPN documentary recalls the now-forgotten brawl and the divided Virginia hometown that served harsh justice to the budding basketball superstar at age 17.

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The most amazing thing about ESPN's new documentary, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, is the breadth of issues underneath it - sports, race, education, culture, politics and economics - issues far beyond "Bubba Chuck's" stellar NBA career (which will land him in the Hall of Fame if voters get over his tattoos, cornrows and scrapes with the law). Whatever beliefs you're looking to affirm or deny, they're all in this story about Allen and a bowling-alley brawl when he was a 17-year-old star in Hampton, Va.

Worshipping at the throne of teenage athletes? Check. Using athletes' celebrity to make an example of them? Check. Over-emphasizing the role of sports? Check. Considering drugs, crime and poverty as inevitable for the community's non-athletes? Check. Taking sharply-divided sides along racial lines? Check. All of that surfaced after Iverson and five high school friends went bowling on Valentine's Day 1993 and wound up in a fracas with a group of white patrons.

Directed by Hampton native and Oscar nominee Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the 90-minute film shows how Iverson's case became Hampton's own "O.J. Trail," how a ridiculously-gifted teen athlete became national news after he was charged as an adult of "maiming by mob," a rarely-used statute designed to protect blacks from lynchings. Never mind that the only visual evidence - a few seconds of grainy, undecipherable video  - made it impossible to see Iverson and what he did, if anything. Prosecutors had nabbed the city's superstar, and the only way he would have slid was if the victims were black.

Stereotypes were in full effect, from Iverson being born to a 15-year-old mother and living in a rough neighborhood; to the hard-ass white judge with a history of throwing the book at blacks; to the church and civic leaders who spurred mass protests on behalf of Iverson and his co-defendants (who wouldn't have enjoyed such support without him, but wouldn't have been in the same predicament, either).

With so much personal knowledge and background, James is an excellent tour guide of the era and his town as he interviews coaches, journalists, activists, lawyers and co-defendants. Although we're in a different era, we learn the town hasn't changed as much as he'd expect. All these years later, James say, the city still seems haunted by the case and Iverson's childhood neighborhood looks virtually the same. Choices there still seem limited to sports and entertainment or drugs and crime, with little-to-nothing in between (mostly because those stories rarely make news).

Iverson's nickname is "The Answer," but he can't satisfy all those queries. Neither can James, though he doesn't mind making us ponder tough questions. A lot of people refused to speak to him for the movie, including Iverson. For many, the old scars still remain and there's no desire to pick at them. But James understands the value of looking back in order to move forward, and he's done so in superb fashion. The documentary will be rebroadcast on ESPN several times this month.

"Ultimately, I want to revisit what happened sixteen years ago so I can learn what the lasting legacy of it is for the city's black and white communities, and for Allen Iverson himself," James said. "I hope this film can have something to say, not just about race and sports, but race and American society at this particularly crucial moment in our country's history."

It definitely has much to say, even if blacks and whites disagree on the message.

 

Deron Snyder, an author and award-winning journalist, is a regular contributor to The Root.