Special to you for my bicentennial post, and just in time for NBA playoff kickoff weekend:
I love Allen Iverson. A search on this blog for Allen turns up a mere 5 mentions but he is always on my mind.
You know this. If you’re reading this blog, you know how I feel about Allen Iverson. It is probably one of the first things I ever told you. Chances are even if you found this blog from a link of Chip’s blog, or Mara’s and you barely know me, you know me as that girl who tells stories about Allen Iverson.
Allen & I were freshman together at Georgetown, and I loved watching him play my first two years there. I remember so clearly watching him down at McDonough Hall during ‘Midnight Madness’ which was at 7:00 PM the day after NCAA basketball practice was opened, and quite orderly. The scrimmage against the Armenian national team (or whoever was in town) was my first glimpse of this controversial young man, alleged to have taken the SAT 3 times and only nearly achieved the minimum, (with assistance?) on the final try. Our college newspaper reported he was just out of serving federal prison time for his participation inciting a race riot. The sports pages said that perhaps he would be the best ever. All of that could be true, but it is the last point of which I am most certain. I became sure of that the first time I saw him move up and down the court and I have never wavered in that conviction. Inch for inch, this is certainly true, and he has the most heart.
It’s an understatement to say I followed his career intently at GU. I sent flowers for home games. The term stalker could probably be fairly applied. I loved him like a 1956 teenager loved Elvis, but my Elvis was almost near enough to touch. I watched him on campus and in the dining hall as closely as I watched him on the court. The Hoyas never got beyond the Elite 8 with Allen, but he never really had much help. When he was drafted first over all by the Sixers, already my favorite NBA team, my lifelong dedication was sealed. I followed his NBA career ravenously.
He is the fastest that I ever saw; the best at slicing and driving the lane, the most exciting. He was so tiny among those giants and he was the toughest player in the NBA, driving the lane again and again, drawing hard fouls and getting up to swish the free throws.
I still love him, and though I am loathe to admit it, the additional highlights are likely to be few and far between. He is becoming a creature of the past (those with less attachment to him and more access to reality would say this has already occurred). It is with genuine sadness that I am coming to grips with likely never seeing him play again. (Though I still believe he should go live in Greece and play for the A1 Ethniki and be the best player in the league and highlight reel every night all night. Why not? Go live on an island and get paid Allen!)
So you can imagine my excitement when I learned that ESPN was doing a 30 for 30 on Allen.
Here for you, blogged in real time is my reaction to the program:
Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Baby Allen. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Oh my. I wonder if I will have anything more to say. He was a beautiful child. And amazing. This might not turn out to be any more substantive than a 6th grader blogging about the Jonas Brothers.
I’d seen much of this high school footage before, but it is delicious to see again. His football plays, returning kicks for touchdowns, are impressive. He is so much faster than everyone else. The aired-out, windmill dunks from his Bethel games are better than anything from this years NBA all star dunk contest. The alley-oops, too. These are pro-level highlights. Dun-nun-nunt, Dun-nun-nunt!
The film focuses on Hampton, VA as a racially divided community. The film posits that the Allen Iverson trial is simply a lens that depicts the racial tension of the community. Race is something I’ve never felt comfortable commenting on. As privileged and white, I’m probably wrong on race and willing to let those with firsthand experience comment on the subject. But this is a 90 minute film, and it’s about race. Shift nervously on the couch.
I wonder why he wears #10 on his Bethel HS football footage. Is #3 not a QB number? Maybe someone already had that on the football team.
The commentary on his childhood is stuff I had heard before, but really makes me laugh at the college me. What was I really going to say to this kid if he ever did talk to me? I didn’t understand how different someone could be. He lived in a 2 room house with 14 people. He missed school to take care of his baby sister when his mother didn’t come home for days at a time. Everyone had to wear boots in his house because the floor was covered in raw sewage that backed up from the faulty plumbing. Seriously, what were he and I going to talk about? I bet Allen was real worked up about who was running for GUSA. I bet he cared a lot that my college humor newspaper had satirized the student health and financial aid departments. (“…And if you do have these calculators, as you say, why is that you do not use them?)
His mother was 15 when she had him. 15. I’m trying to imagine the type of mother I might have been 19 years ago. I know that sack of flower I carried around for home-ec didn’t survive the 6 week term. Mike Brick stuck a fork in it when I left it in the debate room unsupervised.
The bowling alley brawl: this film tries to bring all the angles and conspiracy theories to light. What do I think now, having seen this? That Allen’s status as an elite athlete hindered him and then helped him at every turn, doubling back on itself like a shoelace. The fight seems like no big deal really. A standard high school squabble. Chairs are thrown. The biggest injuries are 6 stitches, a concussion and a broken arm. Stuff like that happened at my high school all the time, in the halls. This is misdemeanor disturbing the peace at max, disorderly conduct, (I don’t know what any of these terms actually mean, but I watched a lot of LA Law growing up.)
Who started it, the blacks or whites? Who knows? Was the N word-used? If it was, does that justify the violence? Who knows? This just seems to me like a not-that-big-a-deal fight in a bowling alley. They all probably should have been given tickets and a 1-month ban from the bowling alley, and no more free shoe rental for life.
I guess a bunch of white people in a predominantly black bowling ally shouldn’t start trouble and then be surprised when trouble goes down.
But Allen was famous, and it seems this was a chance to make someone famous pay. It was a fight, and fights have 2 sides, but there were only blacks charged. The only reason he was singled out was because people knew who he was and could identify him.
The night of his arrest Allen Iverson scored 42 points, and weeks later won a state championship. (Damn!)
Director Steve James spends most of the film interviewing columnist and local activists on either side of the story from the trial. What stands out the most is that the introduction of race forces everything, excuse the phrase, into black and white. There can be no middle ground. For the whites, Allen Iverson was a felon that should serve 15 years for inciting a mob. He swung a chair at a defenseless white woman, and he should be held responsible for this evil act. For blacks, he and his friends also charged were persecuted angels, innocent 100%. It’s probably somewhere in between. Maybe they shouldn’t have been in a fight in a bowling alley, but as the white trial photographer said, they probably should have done a week picking up trash, not been convicted as felons. For most people in either camp, there are only the two extremes and no middle ground.
Pow! There is a black and white close-up still of Baby Allen’s face that fills the entire screen at about the 20-minute mark in this film. If the TV broke right then, and never changed again, that would be a fully valid use of the technology.
Allen was charged with “Maiming by mob”. All that had to be proven was he was present, as a member of the ‘mob’. The charge is abusive. But it was on the books, because it had never been repealed.
Terrible mistakes were made at trial. A judge trial rather than the jury trial was chosen, by Allen’s pro-bono attorney and this was a major disadvantage. One of the judge’s defenders describes Judge Overton as, “not particularly bigoted.” Oh okay, just the typical amount of bigotry for a white Virginia judge. That is the best thing you could say about this judge. I learned working for a law firm at Georgetown that a jury of your peers could be a critical tool in the justice system, especially in matters of race, and Allen was deprived of a jury trial.
To me, the most powerful footage of the film is of the sentencing. Imagine being 17 and hopeful of a NCAA scholarship to a big program, followed by a career in the NBA, and hearing that you were going to serve 15 years in prison and lose it all. At that moment, I would have vomited, and then cried out. My knees would have buckled, I would have wept. I would have torn at my clothes and hair. The toughest player ever to play in the NBA just swallowed hard and stood there, like a little man. I cried watching that.
But as much as his fame and talent got him into this mess (he never would have been identified if everyone didn’t know who he was, never would have been charged if he weren’t worth making an example out of) his fame then came to his aid. Community activists rallied, marched, raised money, recorded rap songs, and generally did everything they could think of to get him out. It’s hard to think this kind of groundswell would have occurred if Bubba-Chuck weren’t shouldering the hopes of the entire community. The biggest town halls in the history of Hampton were convened in Allen’s name.
Now half-way through, at the 46-minute mark, director Steve James is reflecting on the racism (both latent and overt) in his hometown of Hampton when he was growing up, twenty years before the Iverson trial. Maybe this is news to him, but I’m not at all surprised that Virginia was really racist in the 70s. I’m pretty sure it’s really racist now as are most states in the South, and to be fair a lot of places in the North.
Now at the 52-minute mark, James is listing folks that are unwilling to speak to him on the record about the trial. One person who does reluctantly come forward asks what the purpose of digging all this up is again could possibly be? What really could be gained? That seems like a fair question. Sensationally, this is interesting and ESPN will sell some ads. I’m naturally glad for any airtime for AI, but I doubt any additional reflection on the past will lead to apologies or racial healing.
At the 53-minute mark, there it is again. The glorious, angelic, black and white headshot of baby Allen (mentioned above at the 20-minute mark). It’s by far the most visually compelling thing in this documentary and James knows it.
58-min: Tom Brokaw interviews Allen in prison. Hampton takes some PR lumps when the sun shines on the kangaroo court they are running down there.
60-min: The film advances that Allen was done in, or at least not assisted by, not only the white community, but upper class blacks that didn’t want to rock the boat for this lower class, street kid. House help. Uncle Toms.
64-min – Allen Iverson is denied bond. This is unheard of for this type of crime.
71-min – In one way, Allen is lucky: in his timing. The first elected black governor, Douglas Wilder is nearing the end of his term. Community activists (and Bruce Hornsby! Mandolin Rain!) petition Wilder to pardon AI. He does, and later the other convicted young men. Allen is now free.
73-min – Allen is tutored extensively by Sue Lambiotte to get his GED, as he is not allowed to return to Bethel High School. The footage of his mock high school graduation ceremony from the learning center is of a proud and happy young man. He laughs genuinely and smiles broadly.
77-min – Allen is chosen #1 overall in the NBA draft. After dragging Allen Iverson behind a truck, the city of Hampton has the gall to host Allen Iverson Day and a parade. Since they didn’t kill him, they might as well cash in.
83-min – Snap back to the present, Allen weeps openly when thanked for granting a college scholarship. The toughness and the rawness when he speaks makes it all so clear. He’s told himself he didn’t need anyone or anything since he was a little kid, that he could do it all alone, and he pretty much has. Fine, now you’re gonna put me in jail, now you’re gonna hate on me, go ahead. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. I don’t need to listen to coach.
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James justifies the film in hoping that viewers will give more consideration to the struggle around race and sports. What does it mean that the NBA and NFL are dominated by black athletes? Does this actually condemn scores of children who hope to succeed in the way of their heroes? I never for one moment thought that I could be like Dr. J, or Charles Barkley so I never could have traded time doing my homework for taking extra free throws, but maybe for some kids this distant, improbable goal serves as an out for pursuing more realistic endeavors.
I think it’s telling that even that tiny fraction that do make the pros, don’t really succeed in the way we imagine. Many (60%?) NBA stars live paycheck to paycheck to support the superstar lifestyle, play short careers and end up filing for bankruptcy. Right now, no one knows the extent of Allen’s gambling debts and if he is financially secure. Even the way out is no way out.