Allen Iverson returns to his old high school to renew a bond with the 757
By naming its gym after the Hall of Famer, Hampton’s Bethel High School honored a prep career that came to an abrupt end 25 years ago
HAMPTON, Va. — Allen Iverson wasn’t scheduled to speak Tuesday when Bethel High School renamed its gymnasium and basketball court in his honor. But realistically, the man known locally as “Bubba Chuck” had to know he wasn’t getting out of his former school’s airspace without touching his people. And as the 2001 NBA MVP and Hall of Famer began to speak, on came those familiar tears and lip quiver and that familiar choppy voice.
“I’m Virginia,” he said.
A few seconds later, Iverson tried again. “I’m Virginia.” Fighting back tears, he continued, “It’s as simple as that … I’ve loved y’all for all these years for supporting me throughout the ups and downs in my life. We us. We Virginia. We beautiful. We the best. And we the toughest, strongest and we believe in each other. I just love y’all.”
To say the feeling was mutual wouldn’t do the moment justice. The Tidewater region of Virginia — known as Seven Cities or “the 757” — worships the ground Iverson, 44, walks on, especially its black community. Screams of “We love you, Chuck!” and “Take your time, bruh!” made this ribbon-cutting ceremony feel like Sunday service.
“This is my home. This is who I am,” the 11-time All Star told News 3 in Hampton. “It’s just a beautiful feeling seeing people that are here that actually care.”
More than 200 men, women and children stood shoulder to shoulder near the outside entrance to the gym, all hoping to get close to the four-time NBA scoring champion. The speakers included Hampton mayor Donnie Tuck, school board chairwoman Ann Stevens Cherry and Iverson’s longtime confidante and manager Gary Moore. Taking in the moment from the back were New Jersey high school basketball legend, former University of Memphis star and Cleveland Cavaliers 2002 first-round pick DaJuan Wagner and consultant William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley.
“Allen Iverson needs no introduction in this community because he has always been invested in this community,” said Cherry. “We thank Bubba Chuck for not forgetting where he came up. We thank him for contributing to Hampton City Schools and to Bethel High School’s athletic program — male and female. The naming of this gym is significant, but more significant is the fact that he gave generously to a school that he didn’t forget. And today this school is not forgetting him.”
Bethel High, known as “1067” for its street number on Big Bethel Road, in some ways still looks like it did when Iverson was enrolled there for three years in the early 1990s. About two-thirds of its nearly 1,800 students are black. Its basketball and football teams, which Iverson made national commodities with two state titles in the same academic year, have found occasional success — though in recent years both programs have struggled.
Inside the entrance to the gym before arriving at the court, the first sign reads: ALLEN IVERSON GYMNASIUM. To the left stands a glass case of memorabilia from signed basketballs, jerseys and vintage photos of Iverson at various stages of his playing career.
“Totally well-deserved,” Grammy-nominated rapper and Virginia Beach native Pusha T told The Undefeated via phone. “Seeing this happen right now — we needed to check off that box.”
Of course, Iverson technically never finished Bethel High School. He couldn’t. Life saw fit otherwise. But if Tuesday proved anything, it’s that not all graduations come with a diploma.
In the ’90s, high school sports in the 757 featured future household names such as Aaron Brooks, Ronald Curry and Michael Vick. Yet Iverson accomplished just as much, if not more, while playing with a shorter high school shelf life. He started at wide receiver as a freshman and by his sophomore year played both quarterback and roamed the secondary on defense. He was unanimously named to the All-Peninsula District team as a sophomore after recording 13 interceptions — including five in one game.
In his junior year, Iverson became a national name for his exploits both in football and basketball. “I was in Los Angeles, and they’re talking about Allen Iverson. I was in Florida, and they’re talking about Allen Iverson,” AAU basketball guru Boo Williams told the Newport News Daily Press in 1993.
“He’s a living legend. I hang around the gyms and hear kids talking about him,” said Bob Bailey, who served as public address announcer at Bethel’s basketball games during Iverson’s time. “I think everybody who lives in Aberdeen and North Hampton who’s 6 or 7 years old knows Bubba Chuck.”
In the summer of 1992, Iverson led Williams’ AAU squad to the national championship in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As he was at four other venues that summer, Iverson was named MVP of the tournament. Once the school year started, his domination continued. As a quarterback, defensive back and kick returner, Iverson amassed 2,204 total yards and 29 total touchdowns, including four punts, a kickoff and two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Iverson would lead Bethel to its first state championship since 1976 that season. In the title game against E.C. Glass, he threw for 201 yards, ran for a touchdown, took a punt 60 yards to the house and intercepted two passes on defense. At the time, Florida State saw Iverson as the heir apparent to Charlie Ward, who played both quarterback and point guard for the Seminoles.
Iverson didn’t rest long. Three days after Bethel’s football title, he got to work on the basketball court, dropping 37 in a season-opening win against Kecoughtan. He’d score at least 40 points seven times that season. His games packed his local gym and the Hampton Coliseum. College scouts saw him as the best high school basketball player in the country. Iverson’s 982 points that season stood as Virginia’s single-season scoring record until Mac McClung broke the mark in 2018.
“His high school games felt like college! Even at that age and during those times, he was somebody,” said Pusha T. “He was a hero to all of us. I don’t really remember him being a peer. He changed [the game]. And he was from us!”
Save for maybe Teddy Riley, there was no bigger celebrity from the 757 at that time than Allen Iverson. Which made what happened on Feb. 14, 1993, one of the most pivotal and dividing moments in Hampton’s history. Iverson and a group of friends were bowling, having fun and being rowdy at Hampton’s Circle Lanes (now called Sparetimes). Typical high school behavior, as most around town tell it. But a brawl between Iverson’s friends, all of them black, and a white group ignited into a national news story.
America was on edge over racial violence and the criminal justice system’s role in preserving it. This was two years after the Rodney King police beating and Latasha Harlins’ murder, a year after the Los Angeles riots and a year before the O.J. Simpson trial. Now the most recognizable high school athlete in the country was at the center of a controversy involving race and justice. Footage of the brawl showed chairs being thrown and chaos erupting in the bowling alley. One side claimed racial epithets were used. The other said the black teenagers were looking for trouble. But all those charged were black, including Iverson for three counts maiming by mob and one count of assault by mob.
Iverson’s focus on the basketball court remained sharp, even as his world shifted around him. The night he was charged he dropped 42 in a game. Iverson’s last home game at Bethel would take place on March 2, 1993. It was Bethel’s first regional appearance in nearly 19 years. Against the Western Branch of Chesapeake, Iverson delivered a masterful performance with 32 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, eight steals and four blocked shots. Much like in football months earlier, Iverson would lead his team to the state championship and be honored as Virginia’s high school basketball player of the year. He would never play another game at Bethel High School in either sport.
As Iverson’s legal dilemma stretched past the end of his junior year, not many expected the case to go beyond a slap on the wrist. Until it did. Iverson, Michael Simmons, Melvin Stephens Jr. and Samuel Wynn were all convicted as adults of maiming by mob. In September 1993, Iverson was sentenced to five years in prison. Months later, Iverson, Simmons, Stephens and Wynn were granted clemency by Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder — the first elected black governor in American history — on the condition they continue their education. It would be Wilder’s final act in office. Iverson would receive his high school diploma from Richard Milburn High School in Virginia Beach. His conviction was officially overturned less than a year later in June 1995.
Under then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson, Iverson would resume his basketball career in the nation’s capital. Like Virginia, Washington instantly came to embrace Iverson. As did Philadelphia, which drafted him first overall in 1996. Iverson’s career would be a hallmark of meteoric highs, public lows and an unceremonious NBA exit. But all of this, he’d admit, went into who Iverson was. Just another flawed human trying to get life right.
“I just wanna thank y’all for being there for me and always on my side, always in my huddle, always in the foxhole with me,” Iverson said Tuesday afternoon. “I love my kids for believing in their daddy. And understanding that I’m human and I make mistakes just like everybody else.”
Bethel High originally planned to name just its basketball court after him. But the reaction was instantaneous: Is that all you wanna do? Put his name on the court? You sure you don’t wanna name the gym after him? Hampton was never a perfect city, nor was Iverson a perfect person. But it is impossible to tell the story of one without each other. And that reverberated far beyond the city limits.
“Being from the 757 and being an artist from the 757, you don’t always win everybody over. Artistically, I’ve watched people love the Clipse — I’ve watched some people not like the Clipse. Pharrell, Timbaland, Missy [Elliott], all the same. It’s been unanimous for Iverson,” Pusha T said. “He wore the Superman cape. He was loved by all seven cities like he was from all seven cities.”
Two hundred people congregated outdoors here because Iverson is Bethel. And Bethel is Iverson. “He’s always been loyal to us,” said Hampton resident Stephanie Brown. “And we’ll always be loyal to him.”
The story wasn’t always pretty. Nor did it have the ending many believed it should have had. But Allen Iverson and Bethel High School are forever. And now it’s in writing.