Looking every bit as clean-cut as the name Allen suggests, the Iverson we see in Steve James’ documentary, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, for ESPN’s acclaimed 30 For 30 series, is not the one we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. He looks sweet and innocent. His body is tattoo-free. There is far too little hair on his head for menacing cornrows.
“Bubbachuck” is what family, friends and fans call him. He is but a boy—at least in the face.
In reality, his life was very different than the idealized American dream so often marketed to teenagers. His childhood sports superstardom wasn’t the stuff of those feel-good movies. There was no proud father sitting alongside the rest of the family, cheering his only son on from the stands. Instead, his is the classic ghetto story. Born to a 15-year-old mother, forced to endure poverty, sports was his one-way ticket out.
Of course, he grew up too fast. No child should have to miss school because his mother, a drug user, didn’t bother to come home. Being the eldest, on those occasions, Iverson would get his elementary-aged sister ready and off to school while he stayed at home to care for their baby sister rather than leave the toddler home alone. Is it little wonder he had a chip on his shoulder? To some others, basketball and football were just games. For him, they were literally a lifeline.
Those who recall Iverson’s illustrious high school career know that his ticket to the NBA didn’t come easy. Valentine’s Day at a local bowling alley in 1993, a group of white and black boys got into a fight. Iverson was accused of hitting an innocent white female bystander with a chair, resulting in a concussion and six stitches over her eye. Some say that the N-word was at the center of the melee, with the white boys serving as the instigators. Others insist Iverson and his “thugs” attacked innocent white people.
When all was done, only Iverson, along with Michael Simmons, 18, Melvin Stephens Jr., 17 and Samuel Wynn, 18, were arrested. Not one white boy. Ignoring a recommendation to try Iverson as a juvenile, the white judge tried him as an adult. Never mind that Iverson had no prior record. Eventually, Iverson and Simmons received 15-year sentences, with 10 years suspended, for “maiming by mob,” a law ironically intended to prevent the lynching of black people, despite the fact that no one was killed and there were no long-term injuries.
It’s hard to imagine young, white men receiving similar sentences, if tried at all. Iverson’s celebrity galvanized many in a legal defense effort known as S.W.I.S., an acronym for Simmons, Wynn, Iverson and Stephens, although freeing Iverson was the primary goal. No Crossover explores those racial tensions and their lingering effects on the Hampton/Newport News area known as “the Peninsula”.
Director Steve James, best known for the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams about two impoverished high school basketball players from my hometown Chicago with their hearts set on the NBA, is also from this area. His dad was actually among Iverson’s biggest fans and one of his few white supporters during the turbulent incident so James is personally connected to this story.
Perhaps it’s a blessing that Iverson, along with other key participants and witnesses, declined James’s interview requests. Otherwise, the insight shared by his childhood coaches, including Bob Barefield, who often fed Iverson his only meal of the day as a child, and his white Bethel High School coach Dennis Kozlowski might have been overlooked. Community activists like Joyce Hobson and Shaun Brown or the numerous others may have been skipped.
Hearing from the activists and other members of the community is good and bad. James spends a portion of the documentary on conspiracy theories posited by several black people. Hobson’s insistence that violence is justifiable when the N-word is used is unsettling. Fighting is wrong but there’s no way it warranted three felony convictions. How did this punishment fit the crime?
Unfortunately, that is the point so many miss in No Crossover. The inequities of Jim Crow and slavery have not disappeared. Coincidentally close to Colonial Williamsburg, which keeps our nation’s history alive, the Hampton/Newport News area is not unblemished by this nation’s complicated racial history. More than anything, it’s in the thick of it.
Make no mistake: Allen Iverson has been no saint. It is plausible that his subsequent bad behavior is linked to experiencing such trauma at a young age. In dramatic fashion, the nation’s only outgoing black governor, L. Douglas Wilder, finally ended this ordeal by granting Iverson and eventually the two others clemency. During Jesse Jackson’s famous “Keep Hope Alive” speech, he said, “They wonder why does Jesse run, because they see me running for the White House. They don’t see the house I’m running from.”
No Crossover shows the house that Iverson has been running from. Unfortunately, for him, the one he ran into, for all its riches, is not exempt from the racial tensions that continue to plague us all. In so many ways, his well-publicized failures rest on more than just his shoulders. When it comes to the trial of Allen Iverson, the nation, as a whole, continues to be guilty as charged.