Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Confronting Bubba Chuck: No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
“The Answer” always seemed like the incorrect nickname for Allen Iverson. “The Enigma” is more like it. Here is a basketball player who stands 6 feet tall in his Reeboks who made his career driving the lane and hurtling his body at giants, seemingly oblivious to his size disadvantage. Here is a guy who plays as if winning were the only option, even as he ignores that one of the options of winning is passing the ball to get help from one’s teammates. Here is a guy who hoops with his heart on his trademark protective sleeve, who has earned himself fans and foes alike with his emotional outbursts. In many ways, Iverson is the basketball equivalent of Mike Tyson: short (relatively speaking), fast, fearless, self-destructive, elusive yet forthcoming, menacing yet tender and, all the while, undeniably fascinating, love him or hate him. A rousing feature-length documentary could easily be made chronicling Iverson’s tumultuous NBA career, but in No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson we get something altogether more captivating – a glimpse of man before he was “The Answer,” before he was “A.I.” and before his body was covered in literal and metaphorical tattoos.
No Crossover is about a kid called Bubba Chuck. That was Allen Iverson’s nickname growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the place where his athletic career began and, amazingly, almost ended. A two-sport star at Bethel High School, Iverson won acclaim both on the basketball court and the football field, but his hopes for professional success were nearly undone at the local bowling alley. On Valentine’s Day in 1993, Iverson was at the epicenter of a brawl that pitted him and some his black friends against some white students from the “redneck” part of town. Exactly how the fight began remains unclear, but the first blow might very well have been the word “nigger” being uttered in Iverson’s direction. After that, fists flew. So did chairs. A white woman uninvolved in the fight was struck by one of the chairs and claimed it was Iverson who hit her. Meanwhile, some African-American eyewitnesses insisted that Iverson was ushered out of the building before the brawl escalated into utter mayhem, some of it captured on shaky, handheld videotape. Whatever the truth, Iverson, only 17 years old, was tried as an adult and convicted, along with three of his black friends, of “maiming by mob.” No whites were so much as charged. Seventeen years later the specifics of that Valentine’s Day are up for debate in Hampton. But even more controversial than the subject of Iverson’s actions is the subject of Iverson’s subsequent treatment and its effect on the community at large.
Thus, No Crossover is both the story of Iverson and the story of Hampton, as perceived by the filmmaker: Steve James. James was raised in Hampton. His mother still lives in his childhood home. And though James was in Chicago shooting Hoop Dreams when Iverson was on trial, he kept aware of the proceedings through newspaper clippings mailed to him by his parents. Fittingly then, James approaches this subject like a man returning to his old hometown for a high school reunion – with a sense of intimate familiarity mixed with awkward foreignness. He recognizes the racial tension that he saw in his youth at the same time he shakes his head that so many Confederate flags still fly from Hampton porches. ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series has had personal films like this before, most notably Barry Levinson’s The Band That Wouldn’t Die and Mike Tollin’s Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, but this is the first “30 for 30” film that’s as autobiographical as it is biographical. James wrestles with his own childhood memories of whites and blacks sitting on opposite sides of the school gymnasium by choice, of whites saying “nigger” while he sat silently and of black teammates that he never took the time to know. He does this not out of any stereotypical “white guilt,” it seems to me, but out of inward curiosity. In No Crossover, James is trying to understand his connection, if any, to the trial of Allen Iverson.
As a result of this approach, James is a key figure in this 80-minute film, but he never hogs the spotlight. The vast majority of the film is spent on Iverson – on his fatherless youth that had him buying drugs for his mother; on his early athletic career in which he was no easier to coach than he would be as a pro; on the trial and conviction in which Iverson first suffered because of his public identity and then was saved by it, earning release from a 15-year sentence after just a few months in prison. James juggles his material effortlessly, blending talking-head interviews with archival footage, calmly stating the known facts of the case and then treating us to a montage of wild conspiracy theories related to Iverson’s arrest. Iverson refused to be interviewed for this picture, but amazingly enough his presence isn’t missed at all. This movie is about Bubba Chuck, after all, and James finds plenty of old interviews of Iverson that accurately reflect both the man and the time. The film’s most stunning footage might be an old home movie of Iverson’s one-man high school graduation – a ceremony that happened only because of a white woman’s determination to tutor Iverson to his degree after his conviction. Begrudgingly wearing a cap and gown in front of family and a few friends, Iverson grins ear to ear, clearly relieved and proud of himself and basking in the love of those around him – an environment that one senses he didn’t get to experience much growing up. It’s a touching scene.
James’ ability to humanize not just Iverson but the controversy around his trial is what makes No Crossover effective. So many years, all-star seasons, media controversies and, yes, arrests later, it’s easy to forget the Iverson of this film – the Iverson before The Answer, before the tattoos, before the cornrows – but Hampton clearly hasn’t forgotten Bubba Chuck. In Iverson’s old hometown his old nickname lives on, as does the hurt caused by his trial. Time and again in No Crossover, James looks to uncover these not-so-long-buried emotions only to encounter hard ground and stone walls. For each interviewee who opens up to James there is another potential subject who holds back, hesitant to say too much, wary of bringing the issue back to life. This will undoubtedly frustrate viewers looking for No Crossover to “crack the case,” or some such thing. But the silence is remarkably telling. And, besides, it’s fitting, too. Allen Iverson has always inspired more questions than answers.
No Crossover premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.