ESPN's Allen Iverson documentary holds few surprises

Sun Apr 11, 2010 5:15pm EDT
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By John DeFore

AUSTIN, Texas (Hollywood Reporter) - A decade and a half after "Hoop Dreams," Steve James examines a dream that was nearly denied in "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson," looking at a basketball star whose career was almost ended before it started by a racially charged court case.

Produced for ESPN, the documentary will premiere in the sports cable network's "30 for 30" series on Tuesday, and is most appropriate for that venue.

While still in high school, NBA star-to-be Allen Iverson was accused of assault after a bowling-alley brawl that allegedly started when some white classmates called someone "n---er." Though he claimed to have left the scene without hitting anyone, Iverson was one of four young men -- all black -- convicted as adults and sentenced to jail terms.

They were released by an outgoing governor after the controversy reached Sports Illustrated and NBC, but not before the prosecution inflamed tensions in a town, Hampton, Virginia, whose dark place in the history of slavery was unknown to most residents -- including James, who grew up there himself.

Lacking any substantial new discoveries about the case -- most participants, including Iverson, refused to give interviews -- James is forced to paint it from the margins, speaking mostly to journalists, those who knew Iverson as a youth, and community activists who protested the conviction.

While he convincingly depicts the young athlete's disadvantages -- Iverson often missed school to care for an infant sibling, and was sometimes forced to buy drugs for his mother, who was 15 when he was born -- he can say nothing definitive about Iverson's guilt or innocence in the fight; he concludes only that prosecutors sought much harsher punishment than usual because the already-famous Iverson was a high-profile defendant.

In the annals of sports-related crime, the Iverson case is small potatoes. James tries to lend interest to his film by playing up his mostly insignificant connection to the subject: He grew up in Hampton too, played basketball there, and once made a film about his sports-obsessed father.

While the connection yields a moment or two of interest (the only reason the former police chief consents to an interview is because James's mother "browbeats" him), it fails to add meaning to the already established facts. In the end, the strategy comes off as an inoffensive but unsuccessful attempt to spin the humble material into something profound.