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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


LBJ sparks debate on retiring numbers

Oh, LeBron.

As if leading your Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA’s best record and being the reigning MVP weren’t enough — not to mention whispers of where you’ll play next season — you’ve gone and gotten yourself some more attention.

You said it back in November, but now the paperwork is in: after this season, all LeBron James jerseys bearing the number “23” will become vintage. Anyone looking for the updated duds will have to shell out some extra dough to keep up with the times, or be glad they bought a Team USA No. 6 James jersey.


James is making the move in an effort to get the No. 23 threads retired leaguewide in honor of another guy who was pretty good wearing those digits — Michael Jordan.

So there’s a debate: does Jordan’s “23” deserve to be retired? And an even bigger question: is something like the number on the back of a jersey really that big of a deal?

If you’re Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, the answer to the first question is an emphatic “no.”

“It’s a nice gesture, but he (Jordan) is not Jackie Robinson Baseball did it because it had historical significance,” Van Gundy said back in November on NBA Fanhouse.

Of course, Robinson is about as much a sporting legend as there is. The man not only broke the color barrier in the big leagues, but he excelled, making six consecutive All-Star games.

Jordan, on the other hand? Well, he was a great player, one of the best, there’s no doubt about that. But his impact wasn’t the same as Robinson’s, so I’m inclined to agree with Van Gundy.

Don’t get me wrong, retiring numbers doesn’t have to be just about “historical significance” either. I agree with the NHL-wide retirement of Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99. Jordan as best NBA player ever is debatable; Gretzky as best NHLer — not so much.

In his illustrious career, Gretzky amassed 2,857 regular season points, the best career total in NHL history. Mark Messier is in second place — by almost 1,000. Gretzky had more assists (1,963) than Messier had total points (1,887).

So The Great One has a pretty cut-and-dry case for best hockey player. Jordan is only third in total career NBA points and tied with Wilt Chamberlain for career average points per game at 30.1. Let the debate rage on from there.

It’s just that a league-wide retirement is a pretty big deal. Pretty much every team in every sport everywhere has its own retired numbers — Jordan’s Bulls retired his “23.”

So why all the fuss over a number — something that takes away from the identity we get with names? After all, referring to someone as “No. 19” is about as good as calling them “Buddy” or “Chief” — it seems impersonal.

But athletes, typically boasting large egos, jump at the chance to take something universal like a number and have it be associated with them forever. If good ol’ Champlin Park High School came calling and said they were retiring my No. 5, I’d be there with bells on. Forget that they would never do that for an undersized defenseman with zero career varsity goals (hey — I just focused on my smothering shutdown defense), it’s beside the point.

Don’t forget the strange, intense attachment athletes have to their numbers. Pros who join new teams often trade cars or watches worth three times what my entry-level journalism salary will be just to get their favorite number.

I got the “5” by virtue of the fact the jerseys went from small to large in ascending numerical order, and my being far on the wrong side of six-feet tall. I had very little attachment to the digit beforehand.

For the guy wearing the No. 5 on the UW men’s hockey team though, there’s a little more meaning to it. Senior captain Blake Geoffrion wears it in honor of his grandfather, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion. The elder Geoffrion had his number retired by the Montreal Canadiens — it probably had something to do with the 371 career goals he scored for them.

“That (Montreal retiring Geoffrion’s number) was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever been to in my entire life,” Blake said. “Words can’t explain how much he was loved up there — he was kind of like a god almost, it was kind of crazy.”

Two points have been established — athletes love their numbers for all kinds of reasons, and retiring those numbers is a huge source of pride. So why exactly is that such a big deal?

Easy. It means you’re the best.

Sports, more than anything else, is about being the best. It’s about being the fastest, strongest, most winningest, whatever. Retiring Gretzky’s number effectively said “he was the best No. 99 ever; you’ll never be that good wearing that sweater, so don’t bother trying. Find your own damn legacy.”

So it’s a noble thing King James is doing. He’s opening the debate for whether NBA players should avoid the “23” out of reverence to “His Airness.” I do believe that’s his motive — if he simply wanted to avoid the possibility of being only the second-best No. 23 ever, he wouldn’t have switched to No. 6. Yeah, Jordan’s got some big shoes to fill, but so do a couple of No. 6’s in Julius Erving and Bill Russell.

Sure, the whole issue might seem silly for non-athletes. But don’t kid yourself — in the sporting world, this actually is an important debate.

Adam is a junior majoring in journalism. Think Jordan should have his No. 23 retired league-wide? Think retiring numbers is overblown in general? Email him at [email protected].

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