The actions of Allen Iverson, a polarizing figure throughout his NBA career, take on deeper meaning within the context of the tension created among white management — and culture at large — by players in a predominantly African-American league. “Iverson,” a feature-length documentary playing on Showtime, zeroes in on this dynamic, approaching its subject with considerable sympathy, from his imprisonment as a teenager to his embrace of hip-hop music and tattoos. While the film suffers from some excesses, starting with its intrusive score, it’s a timely reminder — coming during the NBA playoffs — of a cultural rift that periodically surfaces involving star athletes.
Opening with Iverson’s impoverished upbringing, growing up in Virginia without a father, filmmaker Zatella Beatty dutifully runs through his youth as a two-sport star (football and basketball) seemingly bound for a bountiful seven-figure future. All that is derailed, however, when the athlete and his friends are arrested in a bowling-alley brawl, with prosecutors appearing to harbor a special interest in making an example of the high-profile player.
Iverson’s sentence was ultimately commuted, but colleges who had lined up for his services were suddenly balking, before he wound up with Coach John Thompson at Georgetown. Yet while his performance there made Iverson a top draft pick and all-star with the Philadelphia 76ers, his renegade image alarmed league officials, with then-Commissioner David Stern seeking to impose a dress code, and others in management, including Laker coach Phil Jackson, giving voice to misgivings about players adopting a “thug” lifestyle.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because those issues — and, as evidenced by recent coverage of the unrest in Baltimore, the debate over that terminology — haven’t gone away. Indeed, the adulation of athletes coexists with resentment in certain quarters, as young stars not only garner stratospheric contracts but flaunt their wealth.
For all that, “Iverson” (which was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival) feels too often like a licensed-and-approved product, invariably putting the most favorable spin on Iverson’s behavior, from his shoot-first approach to playing point guard to his frustration with the media over asking him about missed practices. Yes, Iverson was exasperated that they were talking about practice, not the game, but that doesn’t fully account for a me-first attitude that clearly made him something less than a coach’s dream.
While the documentary features plenty of other interview subjects, including former coach Larry Brown and 76ers owner Pat Croce, Iverson is largely left to tell his story on his own terms, illustrated with plenty of dazzling footage from his prime, before a series of trades that eventually led to his retirement. As a cultural document with ramifications beyond its star, “Iverson” is certainly worthwhile. It’s in its determination to let its namesake put the best spin on things where the film occasionally takes its eye off the ball.