In my first impression of Allen Iverson, he wasn’t exactly Mr. Nice Guy.
After being probed by a fellow reporter about how he think he’d fare in the athletic competition of today’s NBA, the former MVP’s answer was short and not-so-sweet: “What do you want me to say?”
When I got invited to work the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of the IVERSON documentary, I wanted to cry; my standom for The Answer spans more than half my lifetime. But as a member of the media—with which he’s had a turbulent relationship—it seemed I had assumed the position of A.I.’s opposition. He took the defense in my referral to his tweet about other documentaries failing to adequately tell his story, beginning his reply with “I didn’t necessarily say that.”
“A documentary without me being involved, can’t be a documentary on me,” he continued. “So this one is me. It’s me telling it, and telling it from my perspective and what I went through in my life. Nobody can tell my story the right way but me.”
His response was simple, blunt and honest—much like the nature of the man himself. And while his answers were brief (the documentary premiere was running late), he was courteous, flashing a genuine smile before moving on to the next bright light and camera crew. It wasn’t what I envisioned my first exchange with one of my favorite people on Earth to be. In retrospect, it was better.
IVERSON is everything you’ve known about Iverson, presented in a way that makes you question if you’ve ever really known anything at all. More backstory than NBA highlights, the documentary delves into the hows and whys excluded from his biggest headlines via first-person commentary from the man himself, privately-recorded footage, and commentary from his closest longtime supporters.
One lighthearted gem of the 97-minute film was provided by Iverson’s childhood friend Jamie—the only white boy in his Newport News projects—who shares the bond he forged with the soon-to-become NBA star. “He just wanted you to be good,” he said, as he told how “Bubba Chuck” taught him to play sports. Iverson let out a hearty laugh as tells the story of how he and Jamie tried washing and brushing his hair to get him some “white boy waves.” The clips of a 9-year old Iverson zipping across football fields showed that he been-had game, while the people in his life revealed he been-had heart.
But at the resounding center of IVERSON, he is the unsuspecting martyr. In spending a significant fraction of time on the inner workings of his infamous Hampton trial, the film relays that Iverson has been a target of ridicule since his humble beginnings. He was black, he was mystifyingly talented, he was confident. And from 1993 until (insert today’s date), Allen Iverson has bore the weight of proving to the public that he was more than some thug. Branding the NBA with a hip-hop image—tattoos, baggy pants and cornrows—the man not only changed the game forever, he “took the whooping for it,” he said. White America was not happy, and Iverson had to pay. But willingly pay, he would not.
Though the first word out of Iverson’s mouth as to what he wanted the film’s message to be was “nothing,” IVERSON depicts resilience loud and clear. He was thrown in jail at 17, stifled by an NBA dress code, accused of abusing his wife, taken out of context for “talking about practice,” and still remained who and what he always is: himself. The doc includes clips of his Hoya faceoff against Ray Allen, the Jordan crossover, and his notorious disregard for Tyronn Lue’s existence in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, but we’ve already committed those to memory. How he persists means so much more. Everybody ain’t built like that.
Before seeing IVERSON, I could pass a trivia quiz on The Answer with flying colors; but what I knew and what I understood were not of equal capacity. With stats and highlight reels etched on my brain like a permanent View-Master, this documentary put perspective on it all.
“I can’t satisfy everybody. I can’t be the Allen Iverson that you want me to be,” he said after the film. “Only Allen Iverson I can be is the Allen Iverson that I am. And if you love that, then cool. And if you don’t, shit, fuck it.”
I didn’t meet Allen Iverson through our brief exchange, I met him through IVERSON. —Iyana Robertson