ESPN's 30 for 30 series recently aired documentaries on two of my favorite characters in the world of sports. "No Crossover" was directed by the director of the amazing documentary Hoop Dreams and was focused on the trial of Allen Iverson in the 90s. "Run Ricky Run" was about the odyssey of Ricky Williams in the NFL. Both are complex figures, and in a world of athlete stereotypes of fame fortune and partying, they walk to their own beat.
"No Crossover" (NC) centers around Iverson's days in Virginia and the trial he went through that sent him to jail for a fight at a bowling alley. It discusses his fame, the love for him, the racial split in the city because of the trial, and the absolute stupidity of so many people on both sides. The judge and prosecutor saw an opportunity with a well known named juvenile to make a name for themselves, and instead of sending this to juvie court (a teen fight with both sides at fault) treated Iverson and his boys as adults with felony charges. Stupid. What was also stupid was the equating of this trial with the struggles that MLK and civil rights activists went through in the 50s and 60s. Stupid. The director has a little segment in NC where he goes through every single conspiracy theory and shows how they are all wrong. That was funny. The big name lawyer asking for a trial by judge (who was already hostile) rather than getting a jury that would have had sympathetic (black) jurors. Sorry for injecting race, but the documentary is about the lines drawn in that community. As one older man said, it didn't matter the truth, once charges were drawn the entire black community circled the wagons around Iverson whether right or wrong. Fifteen years and many drug and domestic distrubances later, the defenders that Iverson didn't do anything (including his admission years later he was involved) look a bit dumb in defending him blindly.
What was so interesting in NC was hearing from youth coaches and neighbors how hard Iverson had it. Hearing how his youth coach would feed him a meal just to know he had something that day because his mom was 'out'. Shots of the coach saying how he had to get Iverson's mom involved to know the boy had potential directly followed with clips of Iverson's mom years later saying she always knew he had skills. Sickening. Knowing how crazy she got later with his success only makes these details sadder. Iverson missed 30+ days of school a year to be at home for his younger siblings because his mom was 'out'. Coaches and school administrators looked the other way. The coaches who coddled him once he was performing at an elite level sowed the seeds for his behavior later. Iverson always thought he was good enough that every coach would have to bend to his will. I loved watching Iverson play. He was my favorite player for years, but I always knew he was a bad teammate. Seeing this documentary, I understand why he relied only on himself and was so self motivated and centered on the court. NC has its touching moments as well as frustrating moments, but the frustrating moments are very illuminating.
"Run Ricky Run" is only an hour long. It flowed well, but I could watch multiple hours on Ricky Williams. Watching the doc, you see a confused, innocent, scared, shy stoner from a rough upbringing, looking for basic answers on who he is and why he is here. Sadly, this was combined with the body of an elite NFL running back. Any other physical form, and his journey through alternative medicine, marijuana and yoga would be considered strange but "that's just Ricky". Being one of the best running backs in the NFL and walking away, his behavior was seen as selfish and wrong. How dare he throw away this gift of being an NFL RB??? His behavior was held to a different standard just because he was a great RB. There is 60 mins clips shown where he asks "when would it have been OK for me to retire?" turning things around on the interviewer Mike Wallace.
Because the director started filming this even before ESPN's 30 for 30 series idea was imagined, there is scene after scene and interviews filmed in the depth of his escape from the NFL, his depression and paranoia and his search for himself. Seeing him in a darkened room under covers answering questions about himself is intimate and weird. So often athletes act even worse than we imagine. Even glimpses into their home lives or off the field vignettes are constructed reality sanitized for us to view. Not here. Here he's sipping tea and looking like a mountain man as he discusses what life is worth or the point of it all. There are incredibly candid moments where Williams admits that he does not miss his kids. Williams also shares so many ideas or thoughts that are pretty enlightened without sounding pretentious. Learning about him, it is like your favorite smart stoner friend making it in the NFL. In the doc, a journalist who isn't just a blowhard hack says that he does not fit into any mold for an athlete that we have and that is part of our problem with him. The doc does end with a positive end of Williams finding a course for his life, returning to success in the NFL, being a dad, being a husband and appearing happy. I do not think his NFL story is done. I also don't think Williams is going to have problems when he leaves the game for good. While he can love the game, he has also found meaning in his life.