Hampton native Steve James crafting "The Trial of Allen Iverson"

As Allen Iverson's racially charged trial splintered the Peninsula 16 years ago, Hampton native Steve James was a half-continent away crafting one of the most acclaimed sports movies of recent times.

Today he's close to completing a film on the events he watched from afar.

"The Trial of Allen Iverson" is among 30 documentaries from A-list directors that ESPN has commissioned to mark its 30th anniversary.

Unlike many of the network's incessant promotions, this series drips with promise, and if one screener's hunch is correct, James' contribution may eclipse "Hoop Dreams," his award-winning portrayal of two inner-city Chicago high school basketball players during the early 1990s.

"I hope it strikes the right balance," James said of the Iverson work. "The real motivation for me to come back and do the story 16 years later wasn't to do a biography of Allen Iverson. Obviously he's at the center of this, so the film tells his story growing up in Hampton.

"But the real focus of the film is on the community and the response to what happened, and to now go back and seek to understand what happened and what forces were at work historically and racially and in the media, what it tapped into in the community, both black and white, and what caused it to become such a divisive issue.

"I really feel like that's what I've been on a journey to understand."

During the last nine months, James has traveled from his Chicago home to the Peninsula four times to interview those on both sides, and in the middle, of a chasm created in 1993 when a black-versus-white fight at a Hampton bowling alley prompted mob-violence charges against Iverson and three other African-American youths.

Each was convicted of felonies, but Iverson, then an impoverished basketball and football prodigy at Bethel High School, was the lightning rod. A juvenile when the chair-throwing brawl occurred, he was tried as an adult, convicted by Hampton Circuit Court Judge Nelson Overton and sentenced to five years in jail.

The subsequent firestorm included what many described as the Peninsula's worst racial tensions since the King assassination, weeks of blanket coverage from the Daily Press and drive-by reporting from national outlets such as NBC and Sports Illustrated — the magazine later published a full-page apology for its error-ridden account.

Race relations, law enforcement, celebrity, class and sports: All collided on a Southern stage.

Three-plus months after sentencing, another twist: The nation's first elected black governor, Douglas Wilder, furloughed Iverson.

A filmmaker couldn't ask for more compelling themes.

But they weren't enough for James. What most drew him to the project was ESPN's mandate that the filmmakers include themselves in the story.

"This is not a dispassionate journalistic inquiry," James said. "It is an inquiry, but it is from a very personal place."

Indeed, James grew up in Fox Hill. His late father, Billy, was an all-star football player at Hampton High, and his mother, Mo, still lives in the Mohawk Road home where Steve was raised.

James also attended Hampton High, graduating in 1973, and basketball was his game. He attempted to make the team at James Madison University as a non-scholarship player, but assistant coach Mike Fratello, later an NBA head coach and television analyst, told him he wasn't quite good enough.

James first learned of Iverson's talents from his dad, and both lamented that he played for Hampton's crosstown rival, Bethel. The infamous Valentine's Day melee occurred just before Iverson led the Bruins to a state basketball championship, bookending the football title he authored three months earlier.

Still playing at 34, enriched by more than $100 million in career income and bound for the Basketball Hall of Fame, Iverson declined to meet with James. So, too, did his mother, Ann.

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