Iverson and Jeter: A case of supporting casts


There was a scene on Curb Your Enthusiasm a few years ago in which Larry David gets into a phone argument with a stonemason over Derek Jeter. The stonemason, as many sportswriters have suggested in recent years, says that Jeter is the worst defensive shortstop in baseball and doesn’t deserve the money he is paid. Of course David, a diehard Yankees fan, counters with the stereotypical redundant Jeter defense: he’s clutch hitter and a great clutch player.

In a lot of ways, the scene represents an argument that has dominated conversations in the northeast for my entire life as a sports fan. For years, the question posed by Yankee haters and feared by Yankee fans has been: Who would Derek Jeter be if he were not playing in New York?

The answer: Allen Iverson.

You would have never guessed that would be the case all those years ago. Three days before Jeter was to be named American League Rookie of the Year, Iverson stepped onto the Corestates Center (now known as the Wachovia Center) floor and dropped 30 points in his first game as a pro. By that time, Jeter was already a World Champion and looked to be on the fast track to becoming the most famous player on the most famous franchise in all of sports. Iverson was considered a future star as well, but he was mostly known as the kid who did jail time before somehow getting accepted at Georgetown to play for John Thompson.

It didn’t take much time to realize that their careers would head down very different paths. Jeter became a suburban hero. If you played shortstop in little league, you had to have a Rawling's glove with his signature on it. Iverson became an urban icon. You wore his sneakers and his jersey because The Answer defined cool.

Their dissimilarities in image would actually be reflective of the teams on which they played. Jeter was the face of the Yankees, but everyone chipped in. The Yankees were committed to winning and they did that more than anyone in the late nineties. Iverson’s 76ers were an example of what happens when mismanagement and bad luck are paired together. Example: The Sixers picked second in the NBA draft the year after they got Iverson. They took Keith Van Horn. The number one pick was Tim Duncan.

Think about how differently things could have played out if Iverson and Duncan were teammates. Instead, as Bill Simmons points out in The Book of Basketball, “Iverson’s prime was saddled with overpaid role players, overpaid underachievers, overpaid and washed up veterans and underachieving lottery picks.”

So of course that led to Iverson being a one man show. He was the future Hall of Famer who would never come close to winning a title. Even in 2001 when Iverson won the MVP and led the Sixers to the NBA Finals, the next best players on his team were Aaron McKie and a 35-going-on-50 year old named Dikembe Mutombo.

In other words, Iverson is what Jeter would have been if were drafted by the Kansas City Royals instead of the Yankees.

That seems hard to believe now. Iverson appears to be on his last legs. Jeter seems fresher than he’s ever been. Iverson recently retired from the NBA only to return to his old stomping grounds faster than you could say Brett Favre. Jeter was just named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. And of course, there’s the money. Iverson’s one year contract with the 76ers will earn him more than 20 times less than Jeter’s salary for next season.

But if you look at their whole careers, the two become the perfect case study for how a player’s value is dictated more by his supporting cast than any other factor, including his own talent. Jeter basically lucked out. Iverson wasn’t so fortunate.

And the rest is history.

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Why Shouldn't Kobe be Called the Best Ever?


A group for my old little league recently popped up on Facebook and it’s only a matter of time before the “my generation was better than your generation” argument starts and the entire city begins to weigh in. That’s just how my hometown is. Bar fights break out over things like this. West Haven children memorize City Champions first, and then if there’s time, they get to the Presidents of the United States. In all seriousness, I’m pretty sure the City Council has devoted an entire meeting to discussing the fastest pitchers in history.

(Note: My name wouldn’t appear on that list, but I did have a nice curveball.)

It’s important to note that the debate is never over the best team. If you won a championship, then you won a championship and no one can ever take that away from you. It’s always about the players who were in your league at the time you played. So take the best five players from my time versus the best five players from your time and then we get into it. That’s why fights happen. Because I’m not just defending my honor, I’m defending the honor of guys I haven’t seen in 20 years.

These arguments exist, of course, because no one wants to slight their own generation. It’s not just little league teams, although in small towns that might be the most pressing issue. It’s television shows and music and movies and life in general. I find these debates laughable. It’s not that I hate history, but I’m sorry, I’ll take the advancements in my time over any other era in history. Card catalogs sucked. Newspaper ads sucked. Encyclopedias sucked, and they were heavy. Amazon, Craig’s List and Google win. Every time. Not to mention, online sports betting, which you can click here to find.

And I haven’t even mentioned DVR and On the Go products yet.

The reason I bring all of this up is because Kobe Bryant just became the all time leading scorer in Los Angeles Lakers history, which has led the sports media to debate whether or not he is the greatest player in franchise history.

Across the board, the answer has been no.

Depending on who you talk to, the top three seems to be some combination of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. The old white guys usually put Jerry West in there and Elgin Baylor typically gets thrown in the conversation as well. Only then does Kobe join the party. No matter where he ranks, it’s pretty impressive to be included with those guys at all. But why can’t he be considered the best ever? Why is it so hard to put a guy playing in a far more competitive NBA atop the list?

He’s the best player on the planet at a time when basketball players are the best athletes on the planet. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago, let alone 40. He’s bigger, stronger and faster than his predecessors and he’s playing in a league that is significantly bigger, stronger and faster than it has ever been. The old guard likes to complain about expansion diluting the NBA. I choose to believe $100 million dollar contracts made it more competitive. The money made basketball more desirable to young people over the past two decades, which has made the talent pool that much larger.

Sports, and this goes back to whole little league topic, is one the few places where you can’t even have a civil conversation comparing past to present. It gets too emotional. For example, you might say Happy Days is the greatest show in history, but you have to concede that it would have been nicer to watch in high definition. There is no concession in sports. People will always argue that their favorite player growing up was a lot better than anyone playing today.

Which is why in a column praising Kobe for becoming the all time leading scorer in team history, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke still chose to criticize him for being too much of a ball hog. Whatever it takes to put the stars of today down, right?

But guess what? Kobe is HD. He is the iPod. He is the internet.

Evolution wins.

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