STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Allen Iverson, of the Philadelphia 76ers, has had a newsworthy NBA career. He was once named the league's Most Valuable Player - and also had trouble with police and his teams.
A new ESPN documentary describes Iverson's youth when he played Virginia high school basketball and football.
(Soundbite of documentary, "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson")
(Soundbite of cheering)
Unidentified Man: What you got to say as a junior, to come and win a state championship? It's got to feel pretty good.
Mr. ALLEN IVERSON (Basketball Player): We're going to get one in basketball now, thats all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man: OK, congratulations.
INSKEEP: Iverson did win a championship in basketball. The documentary shows a young man from a home with no father. His mother was often absent. Still, he became a high school star until he was sent to prison.
Allen Iverson's trial is the focus of the film "No Crossover." It's directed by Steve James, whose previous movies include "Hoop Dreams." This film took James back to his hometown: Hampton, Virginia.
Mr. STEVE JAMES (Director, "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson"): I come from a community where sports is king. And Allen Iverson was probably the most phenomenal high school athlete to come from my community, both as a football and basketball player. And so for this athlete to so divide the community, I just thought there must be something larger at work here than just a simple fight in a bowling alley - even a racial fight.
INSKEEP: Well, you mention the division there. Let's talk a little bit about that division - and start, perhaps, with the undisputed facts - that no one disagreed about in Virginia.
Mr. JAMES: The only facts that no one, I think, disagrees about, is that there was a fight in the bowling alley and it was racial.
(Soundbite of film, "No Crossover")
Mr. JAMES: In all the chaos, a home video camera captures only a few, brief moments of the brawl.
(Soundbite of film, "No Crossover")
INSKEEP: There are people who are picking up chairs in this bowling alley and smashing them down on people. It's an ugly-looking fight.
Mr. JAMES: It is an ugly-looking fight, yes. As to what precipitated it, Allen Iverson and three of his black friends said that this white bowler, named Steve Forrest, called Allen the N-word. Of course, Steve Forrest - who's passed away now, so I couldnt speak to him - he said at the trial that Allen Iverson really was the one that started the fight. He was minding his own business, and Allen came over and provoked him.
INSKEEP: And you show some footage from the courtroom as Iverson is sentenced to a total of 15 years for this brawl - in which, although it was ugly, no one was that seriously injured. Is that correct?
Mr. JAMES: Thats right. And what's interesting is, is that the charge that Allen and his co-defendants were charged with was this statute called Maiming by Mob, which was put on the books in Virginia after the Civil War to protect blacks from lynching. And one of the things about the Maiming by Mob statute is that it allowed Allen and the other defendants to be charged with basically just being present at the brawl. And of course, it needs to be said that none of the white participants in the bowling alley brawl were charged.
INSKEEP: How did the brawl and the resulting sentence of this great star, Allen Iverson, divide the broader community?
Mr. JAMES: Well, I think, you know - thats what the film really tries to investigate. And Allen was this transcendent star. I mean, when Bethel, his team, played Hampton High School - which was my alma mater - in basketball, they filled a 10,000-seat arena. And there were many black and white faces in those crowds. So he was hugely popular.
But along with that, there was this undercurrent that Allen Iverson was an arrogant athlete, he was a guy that got away with whatever he wanted to get away with - he didnt have to go to school. So I think what happened is, is that when this brawl happened, many people - mostly in the white community, but not exclusively - felt: You see, this is the kind of kid this guy is.
Whereas many of the people in the black community, but not exclusively, felt that they were trying to make an example of this kid. They were charging him as an adult, and they were determined to not let that happen.
(Soundbite of news clips, "No Crossover")
Unidentified Woman #1: A Hampton courtroom was packed with friends and supporters of Allen Iverson. A judge convicted Iverson after...
Unidentified Woman #2: Several ministers and civic groups have started a legal defense fund called Swift...
INSKEEP: Now, you said that blacks and whites in your part of Virginia saw this case differently. Was this a community that was already divided in some way?
Mr. JAMES: Yes, I mean, it is the South. I tell a story in the film - when I played at Hampton High School - about when we had pep rallies, all the black students sat on one side, and all the white students sat on the other side. And when a white player was introduced, the white side would cheer. And when a black player was introduced, the black side of the gym would cheer.
And so some of the underlying tensions that trace all the way back to the fact that Hampton, Virginia, is where slaves first were brought to America.
People said this case caused more division within the community of blacks and whites than at any time since the assassination of Martin Luther King. And this is just a bowling alley brawl in which three or four people suffered, basically, minor injuries.
INSKEEP: How did it affect your film that although a number of people spoke with you in Hampton, Virginia, the central character, Allen Iverson, did not?
Mr. JAMES: Well, when I talked to ESPN about doing this film, I said to them, I dont think he will participate in this film because I dont think he wants to go back and revisit this.
Allen not participating allows us to focus the film much more on the community than we might have if Allen was a part of it. But on the other hand, I would love to sit down and talk to Allen Iverson about what happened. And I dont really want to know about what happened in the bowling alley. I mean, I dont want to ask him all the questions about where were you, and did you really leave or stay, and what happened, and all of that.
I'm really interested to just talk to him about the place he's from, that we're both from, and then when this happened, how did that change the way he looked at his community, and the way he looks at himself?
INSKEEP: Well, if you did get a chance to talk with Allen Iverson and you asked him how this incident changed his view of his community, maybe he would turn around and ask you the question Im about to ask you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Which is, how did it change your view of that same community, as a white man?
Mr. JAMES: You know, I think I had the impression over the years that I knew more about my community than I did. Going back and doing this film really educated me - not only just about the history, but also about the relations between blacks and whites in this community, and especially about the black community of Hampton.
I got to meet people who I had never even heard of, and any self-respecting person from Hampton should have known who these people, you know, are. And I had no idea who these people were.
INSKEEP: The ESPN documentary by Steve James is called "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson."
Thanks very much.
Mr. JAMES: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: We mentioned that Allen Iverson was sentenced to 15 years. He served four months. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first black governor, commuted his sentence, and the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned it. You can find scenes from "No Crossover" at NPR.org.
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