Wednesday, April 14, 2010

St. Allen Iverson

This is the second time in two months that I have watched a basketball documentary that has moved me.  Wheras the Magic vs. Bird documentary moved me in a strange manner that allowed me to realize how much I love basketball as a sport and how much it currently means to me as a guy in my twenties who is questioning what things in life remain pure and how we can find instances of purity or solace in the world, this second documentary actually brought my attention to the subject matter that was the focus of the movie – well somewhat.

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson is a riveting documentary by Steve James who is responsible for what some call the best basketball movie of all time, Hoop DreamsNo Crossover covers the saga of Allen Iverson’s journey of success and struggle from the fall of 1992 through the fall of 1993.  James was a resident of Hampton, Virginia, where Iverson grew up, and he chronicles Iverson’s rise to legendary status as the hero of the Bethel High School football and basketball teams.  Iverson led Bethel to State Championships over the traditional powerhouse, Hampton High School in both football and basketball during his junior year.  We see a young Iverson who is immensely talented and gifted athletically in both football and basketball.  He is driven to win and will not accept losing.  I have followed Iverson’s entire college and NBA career and it is almost startling to see how insanely athletic he was in high school compared to how athletic he was in the NBA and he was a freak of nature in the NBA.  He single-handedly turns over 75 years of athletic history in the Virginia Peninsula only to find his comeuppance in a racial brawl that occurred in a bowling alley during the basketball season.  A trial over what really occurred at the bowling alley ensues and the whole town of Hampton is torn apart by years of racial tension.  Different community organizations both black and white try to exert their sphere of influence using Iverson as either their pillar of virtue or their guiding force of criticism.  There are misjudgments in legal council; the choice of a jury trial over a non-jury trial, witness accounts and eventually Iverson is sentenced to 15 years in prison.

As we all know, Iverson did not spend 15 years in prison.  With some coercing of the first-ever black Virginia governor, Iverson is pardoned after 4 months in prison, which in my opinion as an observer of the documentary was just.  The narrative that James is able to construct from the perspectives of various attorneys, judges, public defenders, journalists, community leaders, religious figures, and even his own mother is astonishing.  He set out to tell a story of the racial troubles of his hometown set against the backdrop of the Iverson story and he succeeded. I will not ruin the documentary or his hard work by going in depth into the work he does with the theme of race, I will merely say that you should just watch the documentary.

What I want to talk about, since he fits into the format of this blog as someone or something I am passionate about, is Allen Iverson.  Back in January, when the 2010 NBA All-Star Team Lineup was announced, I wrote this on the blog:

Now, this year you might call Iverson a weak spot as well and as much as it pains me, you would be right.  He is having his worst season as a pro and you can see him deteriorating each time you watch a Sixers game.  To me, this has been one of the most painful aspects of this season.  There was nothing like watching a young Iverson.   He was the fastest player I will probably ever see and some of his off the dribble moves were just phenomenal.  Plus, Iverson is listed at 6'0" - and that is a generous 6'0" - and he used to finish off alley-oops and dunks like he was 6'5" or 6'6".  He was a freak of nature.  Too talented and provocative to be understood by a league that was still fascinated by Jordan.  Had he been embraced, they would have realized that he was made of the same stuff, except maybe he was a littler harder.  But maybe that's what made him so interesting, that he wasn't loved.  I'm not going to get into the psychology, but in any event, Iverson holds one of my two favorite bad ass moments in NBA history.

These opinions are still true.  Since that was written, Iverson bowed out of the All-Star game due to the illness of his daughter and then announced that he would be on leave from the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers for the remainder of the season.  We have most likely seen the end of Allen Iverson in the NBA and I only realized it this evening.  I love Allen Iverson and I will admit that any day of the week.  I have absolutely nothing in common with Allen Iverson.  He was raised in such a harsh and drastic environment and was able to succeed in ways that I couldn’t imagine.  Did he come out of that situation with flaws? You are absolutely right.  Did I come out of a privileged upbringing on the north shore of Long Island with immense flaws?  You are absolutely right. So maybe I take that back, I share one thing in common with Allen Iverson and that one thing is that we are both flawed like all human beings are – and if he met me, A.I. would probably call me out on even comparing us in one way. 

I will forever admire his tenacity and his ability to take control of a game.  He played on some of the most underwhelming teams that I have ever followed and the fact that he even coaxed them to a modicum of success (2001 NBA Finals) was a miracle in itself.  He is one of the most charismatic and handsome players that I have ever followed.  The original Answer sneaker was one of the most influential sneakers on my formative years.  He was said to have had a dominating personality (the documentary shows this, his interviews show this, various accounts testify to this, like the time Bill Simmons references when he saw Iverson play live and get called for a foul, only to berate the referee into reversing the call. As Simmons says, “there was real violence was in the air.”) and sometimes that dominating personality resulted in compromised situations, decisions, and arrests.  Those are not necessarily attributes to strive for if you are a young man looking to make it into the NBA.

However, and maybe unfortunately and maybe not, what I will remember best is this latter day Iverson.  The Iverson who was too proud to come off the bench in Memphis and who threw a tantrum and was given a chance to come back to Philadelphia.  The Iverson who cried at his press conference at being welcomed back to the city that brought him into the NBA.  When I first saw Iverson cry, I was moved.  This was a player who was as tough as anyone I had met in real life or had seen in a movie.  I got goose bumps when I saw him cry.  I also got goose bumps tonight (and my eyes watered) when the documentary showed a clip of a student thanking Iverson for a scholarship that Iverson donated to him so that he could go to college.  When asked to comment, underneath a black hat with its brim pulled almost entirely over his eyes, Iverson, holding back tears, said that he did not want praise, that he just wanted to try to give back to his community and to someone else. There was nothing in his voice, his eyes, and his posture that suggested even the slightest bit of contrivance.  I also got goose bumps when the documentary showed archival footage of a high school Iverson, fresh out of jail, graduating from high school thanks to a local teacher/tutor (white) who helped him with private lessons while he was in prison and once he was released.  You saw a genuine love in Iverson’s eyes for this woman and I feel that that moment along with the moment in front of the high school boy and then the moment at the podium in Philadelphia are all tied together into the true Allen Iverson – the Allen Iverson that I will always remember.  I equate it in the best way that I can (being educated in the English canon from a liberal arts university) to a mystic.  Iverson has been privy to glances of troubled human action that I will never see, he’s had to overcome things I never had to and that no one in my family will ever have to, but at the heart he has tried to do what is best for himself and what is best for his family. Was he equipped to do all those things? Maybe not? Did he try? Like anything else, he did and sometimes he failed.  But when I see that teenage Iverson with his cap on, when I see him with his brim pulled down, when I see him on the podium, his eyes strange and puffed with tears, I see someone who has looked life straight in the eyes and wanted nothing more than to do the best he ever could.  Sometimes he interpreted that desire the wrong way and received the just punishments for his actions.

I wasn’t there at the bowling alley on February 14, 1993 and the actual events of that night are still uncertain, but what I do know is that criminal or not, what I know of Allen Iverson, I love. When I say that I see him in his latter day form as a “medieval mystic” what I mean is that I see someone who has stared down life and death, his loves, his profession and his mistakes and still feels that passion within himself, that unexplainable thing that brings him to tears.  And if Allen Iverson does that, then maybe we aren’t so far apart, and even if we are, I can live with that, because that is the kind of athlete I want to admire – that is the kind of athlete I would want my son to admire.

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