Friday, November 13, 2009

Maybe they should retire Number 45

After the Greater Miami Area Free Throw Competition on Thursday night - also known as a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat - LeBron James announced his plan to change his number next season. In honor of Michael Jordan, James, who's worn Number 23 since he was a man-child terrorizing Ohio high school kids, said he was changing to Number 6 next season, though he declined to say if that would be in a Knicks uniform or a Cavaliers one.

Switching a number isn't a big deal, except to marketers and retailers everywhere who salivate at the idea of millions of fans forking over money for a new James 23 jersey. Jordan himself famously did it in his first comeback, when he wore 45 at the end of the 1995 season, in honor of his late father. The number looked out of place on his back and he definitely wasn't the Air Jordan of old. That lasted until the second game of the second round of the playoffs, when, in a scene scripted by Hollywood - or Nike's Phil Knight - he dramatically returned to 23, only to see the Bulls eliminated in six games. But he wore 23 for the rest of his career, winning three more titles with one of the most famous numbers in basketball history.

And Kobe Bryant ditched Number 8 for 24 in time for the 2007 season.

So there's precedent. If LeBron wants a new number and thinks it honors Jordan, great.

But then LeBron barreled through logic the same way he runs over point guards trying to take a charge on him. James added, "There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn't Michael Jordan first. He can't get the logo [that's Jerry West], and if he can't, something has to be done. I feel like no NBA player should wear 23. I'm starting a petition, and I've got to get everyone in the NBA to sign it. Now, if I'm not going to wear No. 23, then nobody else should be able to wear it."

Uh, no.

The idea's not new to professional sports. Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson's 42 in 1997 (players who had been wearing it were grandfathered in and allowed to wear it. Mariano Rivera's the last to have the number). Makes sense. Robinson is one of the most important figures in Major League Baseball history, some might argue the most important. Jordan obviously is a transcendent figure in the NBA's history. But they are icons for very different reasons. Jordan might be the best to ever step on a court, though it's not a certainty. No one argues that Robinson's the best baseball player ever. He's more important. Baseball retired his number because of who he was and what he represented, shattering baseball's color barrier, enduring unspeakable hardships and racism in opening up the country's most important sport to black players. It's a legacy that should always be remembered, whenever any game is played, and seeing his number in every stadium honors his contribution.

Jordan did nothing like that. If James is insinuating that Jordan saved the NBA, many would disagree. That honor has long been given to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and even if that's an oversimplification of what the NBA was like in the 1980s and is a slight exaggeration, it's not exaggerated by much. If any numbers were going to be permanently honored, why not Bird's 33 and Magic's 32? And I think it would be just as ludicrous for the league to retire those numbers, because as great as they were on the court and as important as they were off of it, what they did also doesn't compare to Jackie Robinson.

Jordan won six titles but Bill Russell won 11. Jordan scored a lot of points, but Kareem scored more. Jordan won some slam-dunk competitions, but so did Kenny "Sky" Walker. So why not retire their numbers? There wouldn't be a LeBron James, Kobe or Wade without Jordan? Ignoring the existential questions around such a statement, if you're going to say that then you also have to say there might not have been a Jordan without a Julius Erving. James says he wants to take Number 6 partly out of respect for Dr. J. But if his reason for wanting 23 retired is because Jordan set the stage for the current greats, why's he wearing the number of the guy who set the stage for Jordan? And how does Elgin Baylor play into this?

So confusing.

I can't believe there's much chance of the NBA ever agreeing to this, despite the fact many NBA players would probably gleefully go along with it. Then again, many of them sometimes seem as susceptible to peer pressure as a nerdy 16-year-old hanging out at his first kegger with the cool kids.

"Take a beer, come on. You'll like it."

"Come on, switch to Number 11. It's for MJ. You'll like it."

Example A: Phoenix guard Jason Richardson, who, God help us, tweeted: "Getting lots of tweets about changing my number 4 MJ. Im all 4 it he's the greatest player to ever play. NBA should of retired 23 yrs ago."

He later softened his tweet, which sounds...slightly dirty, saying it was just a thought and that it's up to the NBA.

As amusing as it is to picture LeBron going to each player in the NBA and asking them to sign a petition - as if LeBron's a naive, wide-eyed 12-year-old boy trying to get enough signatures for a petition he can send to the President asking for the destruction of all nuclear weapons - it seems like it would have little chance of ultimately succeeding.

And would the Pistons be excited to raise 23 to the rafters? How about the Blazers, who famously passed on Jordan in 1984 and lived to regret it? Or the Celtics, or the Lakers, or the tormented Jazz. Imagine Jordan's number sharing rental space with John Stockton and Karl Malone's, two guys kept from a title because of Jordan's brilliance. How emasculating would that be to those two greats?

Jordan doesn't need any more honors. To most basketball fans, he holds the mythical title of greatest player in NBA history. He's lauded for his talent, his competitiveness, his skills in the clutch and an unmatched work ethic. That's what he's remembered for, and will always be remembered for, no matter how many franchises he runs into the ground as a general manger.

There never will be another Jackie Robinson. That's just one of the reasons he deserves every honor MLB can give, including retiring his number. As unlikely as it seems today - actually, not all that unlikely since Bryant in many ways is the equivalent of Jordan (HERESY!) - there will be another Jordan. We have the highlights, and we have the memories. Let that be enough, and let today's players and all future ones keep Number 23.


Brock said...

Even if they do or dont retire the number, everyone will always know MJ as 23. And 23 will always be linked to MJ.

Jerry said...

I can think of many other numbers that should be retired before Jordan's. Russell, Chamberlain, Mikan just to name a few. Let it go this was the first time MJ has watched him play. Give me a break!!

Neil R said...

He want's to switch to the number 6!!! Someone show break the news to him that Russell (#6)was MUCH MORE instrumental in breaking the color barrier and building the NBA for athletes like MJ and Magic so that there could eventually be a LBJ.

Shawn Fury said...

Yeah, I missed mentioning Russell as far as contributions from guys who were number 6. My Celtics bias blinded me. And let's not forget that Minnesota prep legend and former Laker and Timberwolves star Sam Jacobson was also Number 6.

BStrong said...

Great read! I hate basketball and still enjoyed it!

Brock said...

Jacobson was 5 for the Gophs.

Shawn Fury said...

And I think he was 7 with the Lakers, but he was 6 with the Wolves. He was so awesome in high school but sort of a disappointment with the Gophers, even though he was on the Final Four team.