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.
Given their fiery temperaments and James' disarming style, that's a shame. But they were not alone.
Prosecutors Christopher Hutton and Colleen Killilea, both since appointed to the bench, elected not to comment. As did those at the bowling alley who testified against Iverson and his three friends.
Their reluctance, James said, is understandable and "speaks to how strongly the pain of that time still registers."
James did interview then-city officials such as Mayor Jimmy Eason, Police Chief Pat Minetti and school-board member Butch Harper. Other subjects include defendants Melvin Stephens and Michael Simmons, youth-basketball coach Boo Williams, activist Joyce Hobson, the Rev. Marcellus Harris and several media members.
Alas, the Daily Press' treatment of Iverson — in hindsight the word "excessive" leaps to mind — is an undeniable issue. So when James asked, I agreed to appear, as did photographer Joe Fudge, reporter Mike Holtzclaw and former columnist Jim Spencer.
"My goal is that everybody we interviewed will feel like their voice was heard," James said.
ESPN plans to begin airing the 30 films this fall, with no set date for James'. Among the other offerings are Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham") on Michael Jordan the baseball player; Peter Berg ( "Friday Night Lights") on Wayne Gretzky's trade from the Edmonton Oilers to Los Angeles Kings; rapper Ice Cube on the Oakland Raiders' impact on gang culture; and John Singleton ("Boyz n the Hood") on Olympic sprinter and drug cheat Marion Jones.
Word of James' involvement leaked Tuesday when Bill Simmons, an extraordinary columnist for ESPN.com, ended a rambling ode to "Almost Famous" with this critique of the Iverson film:
"I have only seen a rough cut. It has a chance to become one of the most important sports documentaries ever. Why? Because you will never think of Iverson the same way again. You will like him. You will feel bad for him. You will connect with him. You will admire him in a way that you never imagined.
"After witnessing what he endured legally and racially — how unfair it was, how un-American it was — and marveling at the dignity he showed as he put his life back together afterward, I promise, you will never bet against this guy."
James appreciates Simmons' praise but stresses that viewers will see neither an apology for nor denunciation of Iverson. His camera was trained on the community's varied responses, from James' mom to Hampton's mayor.
"I feel like I've learned a lot about my community in a broader sense," James said.
And what, exactly, did he learn?
James paused to set his hook.
"I'd like for you to see the movie."
Meet Steve James Hometown: Hampton. Age: 54. Resides: Chicago. Education: Hampton High '73; James Madison University '77. Family: Married with three children. Awards: "Hoop Dreams" received a Peabody and Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and earned James the Directors Guild of America Award; "Stevie," a documentary about James' Big Brother relationship with an abused child, won festival awards at Sundance, Amsterdam, Yamagata and Philadelphia; "The New Americans," a PBS series on immigrants, received the 2004 International Documentary Association Award for best limited television series.David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.