Ask the average American sports fan, “Who’s contending for the NBA scoring title?” he’ll probably say, “Kobe, Iverson and that guard from Detroit.”

Welcome to Jerry Stackhouse’s world, where the sign could read, “Be careful what you wish for.” Nearly every NBA player dreams of being “The Man.” Some even ruin careers over it.

Jerry Stackhouse actually got it. Grant Hill went away. No big names were signed. And Stackhouse became The Man on the Pistons the way Eminem became The Man for musical controversy, the way Dr. Phil became The Man for relationship rescues.

Let’s face it. Given the current Pistons roster, the only guy who was ever more The Man than Stackhouse was Adam.

So Jerry gets his shots. The first-option shots, the second-option shots, sometimes the third. There are nights when I think Jerry’s arms are going to fall off.

With an average that hovers around 30 points a game, Stackhouse could definitely win the scoring crown. At last glance, he was No. 2, just fractions behind the leader, who comes to town tonight: Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.

No room in the backcourt

“How good is Iverson?” I ask Stackhouse Thursday, as he drives to a charity event in suburban Detroit.

“He’s really talented,” Stackhouse says. “Unbelievable quickness, unbelievable ball-handling skills. But . . .”

There’s always a but.

“…But there are a lot of guys in the league who, given that situation, could thrive like he is thriving.”

What situation, I ask?

“Where you are 90 percent of the offense, where it’s focused on you, where you are making plays for the team and everybody in the team is good with that — plus you have other guys who do the other things on the floor.”

Well, I say, isn’t that your situation in Detroit?

“Yeah,” he admits, “but we probably don’t have the defensive edge Philly does.”

Now, before anyone posts this on the Philly bulletin board — before anyone screams, “Jerry Stackhouse is dissing Allen Iverson!” — let’s be clear. He isn’t.

But Stackhouse is a competitive guy, as is Iverson. And you can’t forget that Stackhouse, after two years of college, was drafted by Philadelphia to save the 76ers. He was their first-round pick, hailed as “the NBA’s next great superstar.”

One year later, the 76ers had an even better pick: the first overall. They chose another guy who was two years into college and hailed as “the next great superstar.”

His name was Allen Iverson.

Stackhouse and Iverson played one full season together, sharing the backcourt. By year’s end, it was clear that there wasn’t room for both of them.

Midway through the ’97-98 season, Stackhouse was dealt to Detroit.

Now, if that happened to you, wouldn’t you be a little, well, feisty when facing your old team? Especially when it’s in first place and you probably won’t make the playoffs.

And yet, such is the mark of Stackhouse’s continuing maturity, that when I ask why the 76ers couldn’t have built around him the way they built around Iverson, he shakes his head no.

“I don’t know if I was ready for a team to be built around me. My ego might like to say I was, but my development wasn’t there. That just wasn’t my path.”

Stack’s life as a Piston

Stackhouse, 26, admits that, in a down season, nights like tonight are huge. Like it or not, the NBA has lost even its pretense of being a team sport. Instead, it promotes superstar showdowns like boxing matches. “Stackhouse vs. Iverson! Bucket City!”

And yes, Stackhouse says he hopes the game lays itself out so that he can score a lot, more than Iverson — but only if it helps his team win.

Which brings us back to the original idea here: Be careful what you wish for. Because many is a night when Stackhouse has a satchel full of points, but the Pistons lose. And the stats don’t make him feel a whole lot better.

“The downside of being ‘The Man,’ ” he says, “is that any game you lose, you take personally. If there was a mistake, it must have been mine. It couldn’t be anyone else’s fault, because I had enough opportunities in the game to change things.”

Stackhouse has battled fatigue, aches, pains, icings and what he says are two-hour training sessions just to get ready for another game. Of course, it might be easier if your team was being picked for the NBA Finals, as are Iverson’s and Kobe Bryant’s. That is not the case.

So you hoist and shoot and you watch your numbers climb but your team’s glory wilt. Stackhouse admits he checks the TV after games to see how many Iverson or Bryant had. But there is a caveat.

“If you have 48 and Iverson has 50, how do you feel?” I ask.

“Depends on if we won.”

“Let’s say you won.”

“I couldn’t give a damn.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that reassuring.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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