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No Crossover: An Interview with Steve James

By the mid-2000s, NBA basketball laid in a hazy, uncertain flux, its reputation left in shambles after a near-endless string of controversies that had their mammoth PR machine working overtime. Kobe Bryant was tried on rape charges. Ron Artest — a scrappy, almost callous forward for the Indiana Pacers — ignited a courtside brawl and all kinds of discussion about player conduct. Other stars — including dynamic SportsCenter favorites like Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, shoot-first guards like Stephon Marbury, and mid-sized forwards like Bonzi Wells — were maligned sources of bile, personifications of everything supposedly bad about the sport. They didn’t adhere to the “fundamentals,” like Bill Laimbeer or Kevin McHale; by contrast, they were brash, flashy players, and they brazenly compromised the ideals that underscored James Naismith’s brand of corn-fed roundball.

Worsening matters was Jeff Benedict’s 2004 book Out of Bounds, an unflinchingly grim look at the NBA’s most violent offenders. When commissioner David Stern imposed a strict dress code in the fall of 2005, he was not met with compliance. Instead, he sparked debate about urban culture’s place on the court and the intertwining world of sports, race, and class.

Perhaps no athlete of the last 15 years embodies this predicament more completely than Allen Iverson, and that’s exactly why he’s the subject of a new film by Steve James, director of 1994’s iconic documentary Hoop Dreams. At the start, Iverson — a slender, slithery point guard from Hampton, Virginia — played under noted guru John Thompson at Georgetown, averaging a cool 25 points over two seasons. Then the pros came calling. The 1996 NBA Draft was inundated with controversy magnets of varying degrees — Bryant, Marbury, Antoine Walker, Jermaine O’Neal — but Iverson bested them all.

Coated with more tattoos than Jesse James, Iverson was a smug sort of anti-David Robinson, a player perennially immune to authority and unwilling to play on anything other than his terms. He famously scoffed at the importance of practice. He was sometimes sidelined with questionably legitimate injuries. He was also, in a way, immensely likable, particularly during the 2001 Finals, when he and an overachieving Philadelphia 76ers team took on the showy, well-oiled Lakers, led by extroverted MVP Shaquille O’Neal.

Alas, when Iverson squabbled with the notoriously overbearing Larry Brown, his coach for six seasons, and then Chris Ford, it grew difficult to overlook his checkered past. The man played with such flair and panache that he prompted one to overlook his off-court history — the terrorist threats and drug charges and all — and we did, in large part. These days, he’s an afterthought, and a grossly delusional one at that: bounced from team to team (Pistons, Grizzles, Sixers), he is a haggard, weary, and stubborn shadow of his former vibrant self, apparently hooked on gambling and unable to accept his decreased relevance. Come off the beach? Excuse me? He’s Jake LaMotta with the stand-up. And he’s stuck in a time warp, but the Allen Iverson who exchanged buckets and shit-talk with Kobe Bryant — 220 pounds of menacing fury and precision — a decade ago seldom, if ever, surfaces on the court in 2010.

Iverson feels like a relic of a distant, grimier time in the NBA, a time when tatted-up “problem children” were the norm and the scapegoats of white media pundits, eager to heap distain and condescension on troubled blacks. Such problems still exist — last December’s Washington Wizards locker-room gun show is a harrowing testament to that — but not to the extent that they once did. Whether it’s the beaming Dwight Howard or beloved, charismatic LeBron James, the faces of today’s league are amicable and devoid of notable problems, more likely to dine with Senator McCain than they are to rep for Supreme McGriff. That goes for Miami’s Dwayne Wade, Toronto’s Chris Bosh, New Orleans’s Chris Paul, and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant: all youthful talents who benefit from mostly unsoiled rap sheets and general likeability.

Iverson seems lost in this more conservative environment. To be fair, he’s still sufficient, but he’s not a virtuoso. He’ll never average 33 points a game, as he did four seasons ago. His innate playmaking abilities and superhumanly fluid ballhandling will never be displayed at all-star games again. The most offbeat, rousing star of his generation is in a state of clear decline.

Even so, he’s an innovator. He was largely responsible for the NBA’s gradual marriage to rugged hip-hop culture. After the gaping hole left by Michael Jordan’s retirement, he lent dazzling energy to a league marred by doubt. And, if nothing else, his career makes for an intriguing dichotomy: like Terrell Owens, Iverson has always been alternately predictable and maddening, yet was blessed with team-carrying leadership sensibilities than no one in the NBA, other than perhaps LeBron James, has come close to matching in the last decade. Who else could have led that aforementioned 2001 76ers team — on which the second highest scoring player was Aaron McKie, mind you — to a 56-26 record and an Eastern Conference championship?

And so Iverson’s engrossing story has become the subject of a new film, entitled No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. The documentary — directed by Steve James, the man behind 1994’s starkly, chillingly poetic Hoop Dreams and 1997’s Personating — zeroes in on a fateful night in February 1993, when a 17-year-old Iverson and his band of friends allegedly instigated a vicious melee at Hampton’s Circle Lanes bowling alley. The violence was fueled by a verbal altercation between Iverson’s camp and another group of white patrons, but just as controversial as that palpable racial uneasiness was Iverson’s assault on a woman caught in the crossfire. He was promptly arrested and tried as an adult, eventually spending time in the Newport News Correctional Facility. His career could have been permanently tarnished, but athletic prowess has the power to wash away even the most unsettling memories.

A year after that fabled incident, Iverson was granted a scholarship to Georgetown. The NCAA may have been quick to forgive, but the brawl remained a sore subject in Hampton. 17 years later, it is still remembered as a low-point in the town’s history.

No Crossover is handled in adept hands by Steve James, a Hampton native with a knack for chronicling the plights of pained strugglers, including Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine (whose life was cut short by a car accident in the 1970s) and convicted pedophile Steven Fielding. But James’s definitive film is Hoop Dreams, a subtly moving tour de force about two blue-chip athletes, Arthur Agee and William Gates, dragged out of the Chicago slums and relocated to a suburban Catholic high school, where they are worked tirelessly and, in many cases, exploited.

Raw, candid, and packed with shrewd sociopolitical commentary, Hoop Dreams is justly regarded as one of the definitive cinematic experiences of its era. An Academy Award nominee in 1995, the film remains breathtakingly affecting to this day, the rare critical juggernaut that isn’t deemed “overrated” in retrospect.

Will No Crossover yield the same level of acclaim? That remains to be seen, but Mr. James is happy with the film’s reception.

“It’s a film that hopefully generates talk,” James said over the phone less than a week before No Crossover‘s premiere at Chicago’s Midwestern Independent Film Festival. So far, it has been received glowingly in D.C., Austin, and Cleveland.  

Like Hoop Dreams, the movie finds James deploying sports as a metaphor for societal problems. Also like Hoop Dreams, No Crossover is decidedly non-disparaging, and teems with empathy for a polarizing figure.

“I think the film portrays him [Iverson] ultimately in a sympathetic light,” James said. “The film tries to present him honestly. It’s not a polemical film.  It’s not a film that tries to stack the deck for or against Allen Iverson.” When asked if the racial tension that highlighted the Iverson incident is still relevant almost two decades later, James responded simply: “It clearly is. This is America, after all. I think racism is an inescapable part of the equation. Things are better, but we still have a long way to go. There are so many indicators that we still have adjustments to go.”

However, James does not deny the magnitude of the advancements that a once staunchly separated America has made. “I was in Grant Park with one of my sons the night Obama won the election, along with 500,000 other people,” James said laughingly. “Mixed audience, racially [and] generationally. You can’t witness something like that and think that we haven’t made some strides.”

But even in the Obama era, many people stand divided by something that seems so positively minute. When you’re dealing with an issue as sensitive as race, is it difficult to keep your work objective — or balanced?

“The word ‘balanced’ is always a tricky word,” James responded. “‘Balanced’ has come to be associated, more than anything these days, with Fox News. You know, ‘fair and balanced.’ We know that they’re anything but. The same can be true of some of the stations on the liberal end of the spectrum.”

“But I think every film has a point of view. The point of view has to grow out of it being expressed through an honest look at a situation — and that includes the complexity of the situation. In this case, the voices of opposition against Allen Iverson are prevalent and clearly strongly represented. I didn’t set out to make a film that exonerated Allen Iverson and proved that he was terribly treated. I set out to make a film that tried to understand Allen Iverson. I set out to understand why it happened and what people learned from it.”

Allen Iverson and the NBA at large are symbolic of a nation and its fabric, torn by deeply embedded animosity. His future, like his league’s, and his country’s, remains in a state of daunting uncertainty. All we can hope for are slight but no less vital steps towards continued evolution.