Early in "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson," the latest entry in ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series, filmmaker Steve James poses a series of questions. "At barely 6 feet tall, is Allen Iverson(notes), inch for inch, the most talented player ever?" James asks. "Or is he uncoachable, and as selfish a star as there ever was? Is he an icon who stayed true to himself or a thug in basketball shorts?"
James knows that in many fans' minds, the answer to all of the above is a vague "Yeah, but ..." So he digs deeper to locate the roots of the strong emotional reactions that Iverson elicits. The resulting exploration, with its heavy race- and class-based themes and broad sociological scope, offers a powerful thematic bookend to James' previous signature piece, the canonical 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams."
While that film followed two inner-city kids trying to find a better life through basketball, "No Crossover" -- which premieres Tuesday, April 13, at 8 p.m. on ESPN -- focuses on the seminal moment in the life of a man "who made it through that small crack called opportunity," as former coach Butch Harper says. James examines that formative event, probing how it made Iverson the man onto whom fans project so many sensational and sinister qualities.
"... It seems that people [either] love Allen Iverson or don't like Allen Iverson," James said last week during a conference call with reporters. "He has been one of these figures that seems to polarize people throughout his life, and it all started here."
"Here" is the Virginia Peninsula -- specifically, Iverson's hometown of Hampton, the site of what James called "the most divisive moment in the [region] since Martin Luther King's assassination."
Just after midnight on Valentine's Day 1993, Iverson -- a transcendent athlete who'd led the Bethel High School football and basketball teams to Virginia state titles as a junior -- and several black friends were involved in an altercation with a group of white patrons at the Circle Lanes bowling alley. Someone with a camcorder captured a few seconds of the incident; in the blink of an eye, a two-faction square-off erupts into a storm of flying chairs and flailing bodies.
A week later, Iverson, Simmons, Melvin Stephens and Samuel Wynn were charged with "maiming by mob," a little-used statute conceived to punish whites who lynched blacks; Iverson was accused of hitting Barbara Steele, 23, with a chair, concussing her and opening a cut on her head that required six stitches. None of the whites involved were charged, and prosecutors elected to try Iverson as an adult, even though he was 17 at the time of the incident. (According to the lead detective on the case, an investigation revealed the blacks threw chairs at the whites; since "that's what caused the serious injury -- the chair-throwing, not the punches, not the words, not the pushing," the charges were one-sided.)
Many in the Peninsula's black community thought these developments reeked of racism. Many whites, represented loudly in the film by former Hampton police lieutenant and high school sports announcer Brent Musgrove, felt the serious injuries caused by Iverson's crew demanded a harsh response. The case garnered national media attention and led to the drawing of battle lines.
According to many interviewees, the war's still being fought. "... Today, so many years later, [Iverson] still haunts my hometown," James says. "No Crossover" gives voice to the lingering ghosts, telling a compelling story that's more about a region's deep societal schism than it is about basketball.
James delves into Iverson's background, presenting a sobering portrait of just how stacked the deck can get against kids in urban America. We learn about Iverson growing up in the hard-as-nails Stuart Gardens Apartments in the East End of neighboring Newport News, about him losing at least seven childhood friends to violent deaths and having to buy drugs for his single mother, Ann.
We learn about how Ann would disappear from time to time, leaving 9-year-old Allen to look after his two young sisters. About moving back to Hampton to live with his stepfather, a convicted coke dealer, in a house where raw sewage leaked through the floor. About what former coach Bob Barefield calls "the little raggedy courts" where Iverson learned the game -- shoddy strips of broken asphalt where, if you fall down, "you get back up and keep on cookin'. That's where he got that heart from."
"One of the things that we tend to forget about kids like Allen Iverson -- not just great athletes like Allen, but kids who are able to successfully overcome such difficult beginnings and upbringings -- is just what a tremendous amount of determination and drive it takes to do that," James told reporters. "I mean, it takes a heroic amount to get out, in many respects, and I think a lot of times when people don't grow up in those environments, they tend to forget that."
As Iverson's troubles unfolded, James (also a Hampton native) was in Chicago working on "Hoop Dreams," so he'd only heard the stories of small-town scandal and racial discord secondhand. "Coming home now," he says in the film, "I wanted to understand what had happened and if I'd been naïve about my hometown."
James talks about his own experiences as he narrates "No Crossover," recalling Hampton's often-fraught racial politics through the prism of high school pep rallies: "The whites cheered for the white players when they were introduced; the blacks cheered for the black players. It became a competition of sorts to see who could cheer the loudest ..."
He talks a lot about his late father, Billy James, referencing his dad's respect for Iverson's immense talent and his feeling that the kid might have gotten a raw deal. He interviews his mother, Imogene, who worked as a nurse in a formerly all-black school after Hampton's schools desegregated in the 1960s, and who felt the law should have held Iverson accountable.
James becomes sort of an emotional avatar and catalyst for the audience; by parsing his memories and confronting his own views on race, he allows and encourages us to do the same. In one scene, James turns the camera on himself, sitting for an interview with a black colleague who asks him if he ever wanted to be black. James instinctively deflects with a laugh, then takes a beat.
After a careful answer about growing up idolizing black ballplayers ("So I would say that I probably didn't really wish I was black -- more so that I just wished I could play as well as some of the black players I admired"), James asks his colleague, "Did you wish you were white?" The reply comes quickly: "Sometimes I do. Absolutely." James flashes a thin smile and nods briefly. The smile fades fast.
It's uncomfortable to watch, which is the point; conversations like this can be hard to listen to, let alone actually have. But if we don't have them and let our true, perhaps unpopular feelings fester, James argues, we create the conditions in which awful things like the brawl, the trial and all the rancor can grow.
We don't hear much from Iverson in the film; as James notes, he was one of many principal figures that declined to be interviewed because they "just didn't want to drum it all up again." It would be enlightening to hear him speak at length about the trial, but it feels tonally appropriate that his voice appears only in clips from past interviews. It keeps him simultaneously at the center of the story and on its periphery, making him one of many perspectives pieced together in an attempt to grab hold of elusive emotional and cultural issues.
At age 34 -- 17 years, 11 All-Star Games and untold millions removed from his arrest -- Iverson remains similarly elusive. After an ill-fated three-game stint with the Memphis Grizzlies, an abrupt retirement and almost immediate comeback with the Philadelphia 76ers, a tearful Iverson said, "With the mistakes I've made in my life, I've created a picture of me that's not me." With "No Crossover," James has created a picture of Iverson that appears to be closer to who he actually is than anything we've ever seen. It's at once troubling, exciting, fascinating, maddening and enlightening -- a complicated and rich film that, like its titular subject, defies categorization and offers no easy answers.