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.