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There’s a moment in Iverson, a new documentary that airs 9 p.m. Saturday night on Showtime, where the former NBA star sits down for an interview with Chris Rock. It’s 1999. Iverson, nearing the peak of his success, is wearing all black, with multiple pieces of bling around his neck and a do-rag on his head. He slouches back in his studio chair. “Magic had a bad TV show,” Rock begins. “Shaq did the genie movie. How are you gonna embarrass yourself?”
Allen Iverson was a franchise player for most of his 14 seasons in the NBA. Rookie of the Year. MVP. Eleven-time All Star. Four-time scoring champion. The Philadelphia 76ers have retired his jersey. He’s eligible for the Hall of Fame next year. But Iverson never won a championship. These days, when you hear his name, the first thing you think of is the cocky, creaky tenor of his voice as he says the word “practice.” He emphasizes the “ack” sound in disgust. And then he keeps saying it, over, and over, and over again. “We talkin’ about practice?” Like a dish he’s never heard of on the menu. Allen Iverson is a thug. Allen Iverson just wanted to score. Allen Iverson had no time nor interest to focus on fundamentals. Allen Iverson is a tatted slacker with cornrows who is offended you would ever think to ask him about practice. That’s the media narrative, anyway.
What some fans know, and what Zatella Beatty makes clear in her documentary, which debuted at the TriBeCa Film Festival last year, is that Iverson was offended by the question because his best friend had just been murdered, his team had just lost, and he was caught up in swirling trade rumors when all he wanted to do was stay in Philadelphia. And win. At the time of that infamous press conference, Iverson had been in the league for six years, and he still didn’t have a ring. He was the kid from the projects down in Newport News, Virginia—”Most of the time we didn’t have lights or water,” he says flatly. The kid who used to bang on his friend’s door to go shoot baskets at seven in the morning. A two-sport athlete through high school (football and basketball). The kid who played J.V. in 8th grade. The state champion despite once missing 69 days of school. The one who signed an endorsement deal with Reebok before he became the No. 1 overall draft pick. The one who crossed-up Michael Jordan. The one was ostensibly the best, and yet the one who still couldn’t win.
Beatty’s filmmaking expertly mirrors the vibe of her subject. She moves with speed and swagger through archival footage and a wide range of honest interviews. Her cuts are sharp and jagged with a booming hip-hop soundtrack driving things forward. We spend just as much time (maybe more) watching Iverson sink jumpers and zip from one end of the court to the other as we do hearing from Pat Croce, Larry Brown, John Thompson, Iverson’s childhood coaches, and Iverson, himself. Nobody makes him out to be a hero. For all of his off-the court recklessness, Iverson comes across remarkably lucid and sincere from start to finish. But he’s not necessarily exalted. Over and over again, he admits he’s made mistakes, though he never quite reaches that “coming to God moment,” even after having his prison sentence pardoned, even after his mom successfully begs Georgetown head coach John Thompson to take her son when no other school will. He knows people love him—he loves some of them back. But the bad stuff just keeps happening. The championship never comes. Why?
There’s no clear-cut answer, but Beatty’s film succeeds in that it shows you how kids, particularly young, African-American boys, are a product of their environment. Iverson’s voice cracks as he describes visiting his father in prison as a child, and he’s blunt about the pain he felt when his dad went back to jail soon after his release. He addresses the very human idea of abandonment that comes when someone doesn’t love you enough to stop themselves from screwing up. He sees that trait in others, if not necessarily himself.
The film also shows Iverson’s lasting impact on the league—how he ushered in the era of tattoos and baggier clothes on and off the court (so much so that then-commissioner David Stern imposed a player dress code). His cornrows were and are mimicked by some of the NBA’s most recognizable players, as is his arm sleeve. In many ways, he was the anti-Jordan, someone who would never be cast alongside Bugs Bunny in Space Jam because he was off making a failed foray into gangsta rap or being hit with marijuana and weapons charges. He scared people, but he was popular.
In the end, Iverson’s career limped toward the finish line, bouncing around various teams for brief stints after his long tenure in Philadelphia. He even played in Turkey when no one else wanted him. Iverson retired as a Sixer in 2013, having won nearly every accolade except a ring. It’s a sharp juxtaposition to someone like Ray Allen, whom Iverson faced in college, which makes for one of the film’s great on-court moments. Allen, who played at Connecticut and entered the NBA the same year as Iverson—the same age and roughly Iverson’s same size—has won two championships. To many, Allen represents the “other” side of basketball—quiet, clean cut, fundamental, consistent. The ultimate team player. Shaved head, clean arms; a role model in every sense of the word.
But Allen is not the one every kid wanted to be after they stopped wanting to be Michael Jordan, during those years before they wanted to be LeBron James. Kids wanted to be Iverson. Everyone had his jersey, his shoes. The tragic truth of Beatty’s film is that, when you hear Iverson’s name these days, you don’t remember that part of the story. First and foremost, you probably still think of the way he allegedly turned his nose up at the word “practice.”