Most people might find the idea of going to the premiere of a documentary where the subject of the film is in the audience kind of exciting. I’ve never found it anything less than incredibly awkward. Like that time I sat behind Lawrence Taylor at the screening of LT: Life & Times. I stared at the back of his big, bald head as he watched his life play out on screen—the good, the bad, the ugly, the very ugly -- in front of him and 100-some other people, mostly strangers. I can’t listen to my own voice on a tape recorder. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for him.
This time the film was the world premiere of Iverson on the last night of the Tribeca Film Fesetival, and the subject in question was, well, Allen Iverson.
When he walked into the packed theater to massive applause, I couldn’t help but sense that the black fitted hat pulled low over his eyes, which were already hidden behind shades, was more than your standard show of cockiness from perhaps the cockiest, and most exciting player ever to play in the NBA. The hat must have provided at least the illusion of privacy as he readied himself for the reliving of painful moments and career missteps, and watching A.I. "experts” explain why he is the way he is, to him.
The film, directed by Zatella Beatty took seven years to complete, which makes sense given that, as one producer noted in the Q&A afterward, it wasn’t until the third sit-down with Iverson that he began to let down his guard, and even then he didn’t seem fully on board.
It is that guardedness that Beatty attempts to explain. The first half of the film deals primarily with Iverson before the NBA.
At 17 he was a massive basketball and football star in Newport News, Va., but got his first taste of notoriety when he was fingered as the perpetrator of a massive, racially charged fight at a bowling alley, despite video that should have acquitted him. He got five years in prison, but was given clemency by the Virginia Governor after four months.
Could that explain away the notoriety he gained later as a pro? Maybe. But before we get to that, we finally get to see the good stuff: the zero gravity dunks over guys a foot taller than him and that time he crossed over Michael Jordan as a rookie.
Then it’s to the off court issues that fascinated us. The image: cornrows, tattoos (now practically rite of passage for pro ballers), the “practice?!” presser, the rap album. But item by item, Beatty helps bring clarity to those aberrations. His gangster image was simply who he was, where he was from, what he knew. The practice rant, said John Thompson who coached him at Georgetown, was Iverson suggesting that the reporters were wasting valuable Q&A time on rumors which, Iverson felt were unfounded anyway. What’s more, he was reeling from the death of a close friend from the day before. The rap album? OK, there’s no acquittal there.
Nor was Iverson ever fully acquitted for the arrogance that overshadowed his greatness on the court. Said former Sixers coach Larry Brown, “Allen Iverson could have been the NBA’s most popular player of all time, but pride got in the way." It was so unsettling way to see a documentary end with the sentiment of unfulfilled potential. But to have Iverson in the room experiencing those words too? Maybe I’m giving the guy too much credit, projecting too much. But that was awkwardness on a level all its own.