All Sorts of Shades of Gray
“He wanted to win more than anything.” Even in high school, Allen Iverson was tough. Coach Dennis Kozlowski remembers that this kid, “skinny as a doorknob,” gave his all, in both football and basketball. Grainy footage shows Iverson sprinting down the football field or hurling himself to the basket, headed forward whether he’s going around or through opponents. “When it’s over,” Iverson says in a Reebok ad shot during his NBA career, “I want everybody to know I play every game like it’s my last.”
Most everybody does know this. At the same time, though, much remains unknown about Iverson. The questions and assumptions he provokes are at the center of No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, premiering 13 April in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. As the film presents it, this trial is simultaneously specific—held in 1993, in Hampton, Virginia, where the “high school phenom” lived—and relentlessly metaphorical, reminding everybody of what they know and what they’d like to forget.
Steve James’ documentary is as profound and multi-layered as its subject, at once politically trenchant and deeply personal. The filmmaker also grew up in Hampton, and his father B.J., an avid local sports fan, drew his attention to Iverson, whose trial commenced while James was living in Chicago, working on the game-changing documentary Hoop Dreams. Here, as in Hoop Dreams and other films, James’ narration ensures that you understand his relationship to the material, the questions he asks and the assumptions he challenges. In this case, the trial occasions a journey home and an investigation—of the complicated intersections of race and sports.
The trial concerns an incident on Valentine’s Day, 1993, when 17-year-old Bethel High School junior Iverson and some classmates were engaged in a fight at a Hampton bowling alley. Looking back, James says, the trial exposed the city’s racial divisions, as Iverson was charged as an adult, of “maiming by mob,” a Virginia law that pastor and local activist Marcellus Harris notes was conceived to combat lynching. “All he had to do was be present,” says Harris, “The letter of the law exempts them from explanation.” The “them” in this formulation is amorphous—the state, the prosecutors, the victims (including a young white woman hit in the head by a chair thrown during the brawl), and, by extension, the community members who still struggle with what the trial means, then and now. Famous even then, Iverson became an emblem of these divisions, James says, and today, “so many years later, he still haunts my hometown. It makes me wonder about how far we’ve come.”
James seeks conversation, he says, exchanges that might break down longstanding distrust and expectations. The film briefly notes the difficulties of Iverson’s childhood—his absent father, the mother and younger sister he looked after as a boy, the poor neighborhood where he came up. James also notes the context Hampton provides, as the first place—in 1610—where slaves were brought to the U.S. “Or,” he adds, “as the tourist magazine in my hotel spins it, where the first Africans to arrive in the colonies disembarked.” This sort of revisionism is hardly unique to Virginia—though it does come up repeatedly, as in the recent egregious display by current governor, Bob McDonnell. Rather, the film argues, it is the process by which history is written, framed and reframed to benefit certain ideals, politics, and sometimes, individuals.
And so No Crossover uses the 1993 trial as occasion to revisit such revisionism. Local news footage recalls the participation of witnesses, lawyers, and activists, the difficulties of finding a stable truth about that night, a point underlined by the replaying of nearly illegible tape made by someone in the bowling alley. While the media at the time were certainly focused on Iverson, the film makes clear that his life is just one of many affected by the legal and other proceedings.
As James seeks understanding, he speaks not only with sports writers (who were at that time and place, all white, the film notes, and called on to analyze black athletes and experiences), coaches, lawyers, and local activists, but also with his mother, a former school nurse whose recollections of high school “race relations” only underscore their ongoing irresolution. James includes as well a couple of conversations he shares with his black camera operator Keith Walker. When James admits that for all his own memories of high school basketball bringing young teammates together (“I always thought that sports was my common ground with blacks”), he “was never in any black teammate’s home and no black teammate was ever in my home.”
Asked whether he ever wanted to be black, James laughs uncomfortably, cites his black idols on the court, but rejects that idea pretty much outright. When he asks Walker whether he ever wanted to be white, the answer is straight-up: “Sometimes I did, absolutely.” At last, the film embraces the complexity and difficulty of race and racism, their circuitous legacies of pain and ambition. It also remain open-ended, as it must be. But insists that even as privilege has its own perspective, it is crucial to break through, to ask questions and share experiences even if there can be no answers.