Saturday, December 19, 2015

Showtime Documentary Film “Iverson”: The Messenger

There are many stories that have little meaning for mainstream America but which have touched countless lives in little known corners of America.   The story of Allan Iverson is one such story. 
  Part of the former basketball superstar’s life story can be seen in the 2014 documentary “Iverson.”  Showtime television presents the documentary primarily for its sports fans, but its resonance is broader than you might expect. It’s an interesting documentary, one worth seeing, and one both heart-warming and heart-burning at the same time.   

It opens at an outdoor basketball court at the Boys and Girls Club Virginia  where pre-teen boys are asked by the filmmaker what they think of Allan Iverson. It’s riveting right away because a couple of the kids announce they are his cousins. Yet the variety of opinions offered by these unabashed little commentators is funny, charming, and revealing of what is to come.

The first thing the kids note is that Iverson’s “got a bad attitude.” Another says, “He’s a good player on the court but I don’t take up for him in public.”  Another complains disapprovingly, “When he came here to talk he didn’t sign no autographs, he just walked off the court.”

There will be some people who, upon hearing this, will be confirmed in their negative opinions of the 11-time NBA All-star player.  For them, Iverson is another one of “those people” who set a bad example for the “youth of America.” But these kids are the “youth of America” and the opinions they have are a reflection of the celebrity basketball star image they’ve gleaned from their parents and the media.

I hit the pause button to look at the faces of the children. Losing the words, you see gleeful faces, puzzled faces, suspicious faces, disinterested faces, and faces grateful for the least bit of attention. Their splintered syntax is right for the neighborhood but wouldn’t pass muster with English teachers in white middle class suburbs. Nonetheless, these boys get an “A” for candor and honesty. Because these kids, like Allan Iverson, are not about appearance so much as they are about “keeping it real.”  “Keeping it real” more or less defines the controversial Allan Iverson.   

The intro scene then fades into a song: “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” The director wants us to take a deeper look, to see if there’s something we missed of the Iverson story.
Iverson’s story is first of all an NBA basketball story. But there is another story behind it, a human story, and one which changed the very nature of the way people see themselves. Why would I, a white, middle-class suburban Republican, be interested in a documentary about a ghetto bad boy basketball star? I guess it’s because, though I have always been white, I haven’t always been a middle-class suburbanite.

I know what the odds are to rise above one’s situation, and I’m also part of the world that loves an underdog. Allan Iverson is the underdog, the rebel, the outlier, the guy who wasn’t supposed to succeed. He’s a basketball Rocky Balboa or an equine Seabiscuit, the gangly horse who wasn’t supposed to win the race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral, on November 1, 1938.

How do underdogs win?  They work harder. They outhustle the field of the more fortunate. They are hungry – often in the literal sense. Or like Buster Douglas, they have one great fight in them, and bring it on the night that will change destinies. Yet like Mike Tyson, Allan Iverson had the sort of life that has unfortunately became too often generic: raised by a single mom in a project house where there was insufficient food and scant electricity.  

I first heard about Allan Iverson while teaching at an alternative high school in Pennsylvania. One of the best kept secrets about the teaching profession is that the teacher gets at least as much education as the students.  My students ranged in age from sixteen to twenty-two. Most were male and nearly all of them had been down by law. I’m not a small man but a couple of my students were huge, big enough and strong enough to lift  me up and throw me out the windows to the parking lot two floors below.

Why that never happened was because of two important things. Firstly, I could summon some serious muscle in a hurry if I needed it. Secondly, my survival depended on knowing where my students were coming from, and in communicating with them in two languages – theirs, and my own.

I taught Language Arts and Social Studies in the conventional way, but in an ‘alternative school’ it was important to have outlets other than the state’s curriculum.  Our basketball court was a good outlet for those times when raging hormones and tribal instincts combined to create potentially dangerous situations. During tense times, we’d convene an emergency impromptu meeting where we’d decide to take them out of the classroom to the basketball courts and let them form teams. The team leaders had Iverson team shirts. Everyone tried to play hard like Allan Iverson. Afterward, we’d return the students to the classroom and pick up where we’d left off.

Attendance at my school wasn’t voluntary; every one of my students had been kicked out of the public schools for drugs, fighting, general rebelliousness, chronic truancy, petty crimes and more serious ones, too.  Allan Iverson was their hero.  He’d had a life that was just like theirs – run-ins with the law.

In an interview with CBS sports, director Zatella Beatty, talks about how difficult it was to get direct access to people familiar with Iverson’s arrest in 1993 for his involvement in a violent altercation with some white youths at a bowling alley. Her California crew were not accustomed to the privations and dangers of the Virginia neighborhoods where they had to film. They had their equipment “taken,” as Beatty puts it, but survived to make this interesting film.
 Iverson served only four months in prison, because his sentence was commuted by then governor Douglas Wilder. Later, the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned the conviction for insufficient evidence. The incident stigmatized the seventeen year old basketball and football star and the stigma carried with him into the NBA when it was thought that teams would refuse to sign him. It was all about image for sports in America or maybe, as the Hip-Hop artists of that era would have it: “It’s all about the Benjamins.”

The documentary “Iverson” starts about where the basketball star’s career intersects with an explosion in the music world.  Hip-hop had become prominent as music, and as style, though many people worried that it was destroying America’s youth, that it was promoting gang activity. Maybe it does that, but it’s not all a monolith as some would have us believe. Some forms of hip-hop tell a story, and sometimes it is an ugly true story whether the rest of the world wants to look at it or not.  

In a sad and somber appearance before the press, Allan Iverson announced his retirement from basketball October 30, 2013. “I’m happy with the decision I’m making,” he says, but he doesn’t look at all happy. He looks sad and wistful as the narrator tells us “Allan Iverson could have been the most popular athlete the NBA’s ever had.” Cut to a shot of Iverson speeding down the court sideline and Tom Brokaw saying “You can’t take your eyes off of him.” So there are lots of highlight shots and fan reaction, his popularity in China, and Europe, his appeal across cultural lines.

But then the documentary launches into the low points of Iverson’s career, mainly attributed to his refusal to conform to the clean cut image that creates cash for sports CEOs.  One such low point was when he was thoroughly bashed in the press for missing practices and for wondering out loud why everyone was making such a big deal of it.  Iverson’s press conference opinion so galled the sports world that sportswriters were talking about his “rant” ten years later. At least one writer has since been  plucky enough to dig deeper into why Iverson, many years into his career, missed practices.  Dan Favale, writing for Bleacher Report in August, 22, 2013, reported that Iverson was trying to extend his career, having received that advice from another basketball star, Gary Payton. Payton reportedly advised Iverson to limit time spent in the poundings of practice sessions.

Iverson was asked if the press reaction and national condemnation he received was fair to him. “All they want to do is dig up some dirt on you,” Iverson tells; his host on a television talk show. Many high profile media types piled on. Liberal Chris Matthews felt he must show his contempt for Iverson’s style and personal choices:  “He’s got the reputation for what might diplomatically be called ‘ungentlemanly behavior.’” That was Matthew’s delicate and almost profligate term for people born into situations they couldn’t themselves even survive.

In the many little intercuts of direct interview with the retired Iverson, Iverson narrates as the camera tracks row after row of project houses or small cottages where he remembers, thirteen year old kids hiding bedside dumpsters snorting cocaine. “Chuck, hit that, hit that,” they encouraged him.  “No, I want to be an NBA star,” he thinks. 

The quandary for Iverson and for the wayward youths in the classes I taught was how to get off that hopeless destructive track. People can talk about the neighborhoods, they can throw money into the neighborhoods, but unless you’re in it, you don’t really get it. In Iverson’s case, sports gave him a direction. For my own wayward students, Iverson gave them inspiration and a reason to believe they could do it too.  Some of my students, I know, did manage to break the well-worn cycle of wasted lives. And really, the way things are – “some” mild success is doing pretty well.

There are bitter notes in the documentary but there are plenty of touching moments, too, such as when the filmmakers interview boyhood friend Jamie Rodgers, described by Iverson as  “the only white boy in an all-black neighborhood.”
               “He used to get picked on a lot or whatever and I used to just look out for him to make sure he was ‘aight’,” Iverson says.

 I liked hearing that, that Iverson wasn’t a hater like some of his detractors. I could somehow identify with it. Though I wasn’t the only ‘white boy’ teacher in a predominantly minority populated alternative school, some of my own student quasi-gangsters were looking out for me too. When things got dicey, or when some young man had a meltdown or went postal and started throwing furniture and fists around, some of my kids looked out for me, too.

I sometimes tried to think of who would inspire kids like I had. How much traction could I get by holding up models of success like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet?  No, it was Allen Iverson who taught them the value of hard work. Like Allen Iverson, my guys were having to do as well as they could with what little they had started with. Allan Iverson, for all of his faults, was the perfect messenger for what I needed to do. 

And so I thank him, and also Zatella Beatty for making this story in film.


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