To the people of Hampton, Va., the case of Allen Iverson—one of the greatest high school basketball stars the state has produced—comes down to one odious word: Nigger. It is among the most incendiary words in the American vernacular, and by 1993 it was only occasionally heard around town, uttered by the rednecks down at Buckroe Beach, perhaps, or a beerhead in the stands at Bethel High. Black teenagers hardly ever heard the word unless it was spoken by one of them. A chump word. A throwaway.
After last Feb. 13, however, everything changed. That was when Iverson, then 17, and a bunch of friends—mostly jocks, all Bethel students, all black—headed to Circle Lanes to bowl some games, eat some burgers, make some noise. The woman at the counter sent them to the end of the alley, to a lane against the wall. To Michael Simmons, the tight end who has been a pal of Iverson's since grade school, that always seemed to happen. You boys, over there. By the time they got their shoes and balls, it was 10:30. The place was rocking.
The black kids started goofing. They bowled on a closed lane, stood on chairs, cursed a bit too loudly. Stupid jock stuff. Somebody from the alley told them to cool it, then told them again. But, hey, it was Saturday night, heading into Valentine's Day, time for a little fun. Iverson was the leader, the point guard, the quarterback. Bubbachuck, they called him, and what he said went. When Iverson began thinking cheeseburger, more than one friend offered to go with him to the snack bar on the other side of the alley. Over by a group of white guys.
As Iverson approached, the white guys were finishing their last game, not to mention their last pitcher. They had been at it since 8:30. Steve Forrest, 22, and Iverson exchanged looks, and that was when it began. The way Iverson tells it, somebody in Forrest's party called him a "nigger" and a "little boy." Forrest is a big guy—6'2", 200 pounds—and he'd had his share of scrapes, including a felony conviction for cocaine possession. But Iverson, at 6'1" and 175, was smaller only on paper. He has the lean, sculpted body of the superb athlete that he is. This year Parade magazine named him the top high school basketball player in the country and one of the top 10 football players. He played quarterback and safety, and returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in 1992, his junior year. That night he was the most recognizable person in Hampton.
"You ain't gonna do nothin' to me," Iverson says he responded, his nose an inch from Forrest's. Then, according to Iverson and his friends, Forrest swung a chair at him and set off a melee in which chairs, fists and slurs flew like bowling pins. Several of Iverson's pals waded in and overwhelmed the whites. Another bunch of whites, who didn't know either group and didn't want to, was caught up; two people were knocked unconscious, one of them a 23-year-old college student, Barbara Steele, who was struck by a chair and would receive six stitches near her left eye.
Police moved in and later made four arrests. To many in Hampton, particularly blacks, who make up 39% of the city of 134,000 people, this is the key: All four suspects—Iverson; Simmons, 18; Melvin Stephens Jr., 17; and Samuel Wynn, 18—were black. "It's strange enough that the police waded through a huge mob of fighting people and came out with only blacks, and the one black that everybody knew," says NAACP crisis coordinator Golden Frinks. "But people thought they'd get a slap on the wrist and that would be the end of it."
It wasn't, not by a long shot. Last July, in separate trials, Iverson, Simmons and Wynn were convicted in circuit court as adults of "maiming by mob," a matter of surpassing irony given that the seldom-invoked law had mainly been used to prevent Klansmen from lynching blacks. Still, all signs pointed to probation, maybe a few hundred hours of community service; instead, on Sept. 8 judge Nelson Overton sentenced each of the three to 15 years in prison, with 10 years suspended (Stephens, who was convicted of three misdemeanors in April, is out on bail and attending junior college in Missouri). To top things off, Overton denied all bail requests pending appeals, even though felons convicted of far more heinous crimes are routinely granted bail.
"This is an extremely important civil rights issue not only for this area but for the whole country," says Curtis Harris of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). "But yes, this is causing a divide."
To say the least. Last Saturday 150 protesters marched through Hampton, chanting, "Free the Hampton Four" and "No justice, no peace," and singing Which Side Are You On? All the police ringing the demonstration were white; only one protester was white.
Around Hampton and nearby Newport News these days, blacks are wearing FREE IVERSON T-shirts; graffiti on buildings reads JUSTICE FOR BUBBACHUCK. Members of the Bethel High football team have refused to talk to reporters, and some black leaders have contemplated an economic boycott against local merchants and the media. It's all new territory for this historically complacent community in southern Virginia, where the closest thing to a big city is Norfolk, 20 minutes away, and the major claim to fame is predominantly black Hampton University.