From the Rafters: A Look at Retired Numbers in the NBA

Less than 24 hours after Shaq tweeted his intentions to retire, one of his former teams announced a retirement of another kind. The Lakers said that they will retire Shaq’s #34 jersey, and #34 will join #13, #22, #25, #32, #33, #42, and #44 in the Staples Center rafters.

(Bonus points if you can name the Lakers player who wore each of those numbers.*)

Retiring numbers is by no means limited to the NBA, but the ritual is especially meaningful in basketball because a) an individual player can have a bigger impact on his franchise in basketball than in any other team sport, and b) basketball arenas are ideal for hanging banners. When you peruse the banners hanging from rafters around the league, you discover all sorts of interesting things.

Interesting Facts about Retired Numbers in the NBA

The Boston Celtics have retired 21 numbers, the most of any franchise.

Jim Loscutoff, who won 7 titles with the Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s, elected not to have his #18 taken out of circulation. A banner bearing his nickname, “LOSCY,” hangs from the rafters in the TD Garden. The Celtics later retired #18 in honor of Dave Cowens. Boston also retired #1 to honor the team’s founder, Walter Brown.

So the Celtics have honored 21 players and have retired 21 numbers, even if one of those numbers didn’t belong to a player.

celtics-retired-numbersImage source: CelticsStats.com

Four teams have yet to retire a number.

So, if you sign a contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, or Los Angeles Clippers, you may choose whatever number you’d like, provided it doesn’t already belong to another player on the roster.

The Grizzlies and Raptors didn’t exist until the mid 1990s, and the Bobcats are only 7 years old. So any number retirements would be premature. The Clippers, on the other hand, entered the league in 1970. Bob McAdoo won an MVP and 3 scoring titles back when the team was the Buffalo Braves. Apparently that’s not enough to impress Donald Sterling.

(The Orlando Magic haven’t retired any players’ numbers, but they did retire #6, in honor of the fans, the “sixth man.” More on that later.)

Two non-NBA players have had their numbers retired

Roger Brown and Wendell Ladner are the only non-NBA players to have their numbers retired by current NBA teams. Brown was a key player on the Indiana Pacers’ 3 ABA championship teams. (Brown had been banned from the NBA because of his association with gambler Jack Molinas, who was implicated in a point-shaving scandal.) Ladner, who played for the ABA’s New York Nets, died in a plane crash one year before the merger. More on him later.

Other interesting notes…

  • Speaking of Bob McAdoo, he is the only NBA MVP (aside from Shaq, Iverson, and current players) not to have his number retired by the team he played for when he won the MVP.
  • Wilt Chamberlain has the distinction of being the only player to have his number retired by three teams, the Lakers, the Warriors, and the 76ers.
  • Many players have had their numbers retired by two different teams, but Julius Erving is the only player two have two different numbers retired. Dr. J wore #32 for the Nets and #6 for the 76ers.
  • Bernard King is the only player mentioned by name in “Basketball” by Kurtis Blow not to have his number retired by an NBA team. King had the misfortune of playing his best years with the Knicks, a team that only retires the numbers of Hall of Famers.

I Don’t Recall Jordan Playing for the Heat

Earlier this week Jerod wrote about the Michael Jordan #23 jersey hanging from the rafters of American Airlines Arena.

Several years ago Pat Riley and the Heat decided to honor Jordan’s contribution to the game by retiring his number, even though Jordan never played for the Heat. The Heat also retired #13 in honor of Dan Marino’s contributions to the Miami Dolphins.

heat retired numbersImage source: yFrog via @Junior_Miller

I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s either a nice way to honor one of the community’s most important sports figures or completely ridiculous. I’m trying to decide how I’d feel if the Pacers were to retire #18 in recognition of Peyton Manning’s contributions to sports in Indianapolis. I don’t think I’d like it.

The only other player to have his number retired by a team he didn’t play for is Pete Maravich. When the Hornets moved to New Orleans, they retired Maravich’s #7 in honor of Pistol Pete’s contributions to the Big Easy’s previous NBA franchise, the Jazz, and his legendary college career at nearby LSU.

In Memorium

Several franchises have retired the numbers of players who died while on the team’s roster.

The Charlotte Hornets in 2000 retired #13 to honor guard Bobby Phills, who died in a car accident. (Phills’s retired jersey later traveled with the team to New Orleans.) That same year, after a car accident killed Timberwolves guard Malik Sealy, Minnesota retired his #2 jersey.

The Hawks retired #40 in memory of Jason Collier, who died unexpectedly of an enlarged heart in 2005, but they haven’t raised a banner in his honor. Nor have the Nets hung a banner to honor the aforementioned Wendell Ladner. In the 1990s the Nets even allowed Rick Mahorn to wear Ladner’s supposedly retired #4. That’s weak, New Jersey.

The Nets have done a better job of honoring the legacy of Dražen Petrović, who died in a car crash in 1993 and whose #3 is hanging up in Newark. Petrović, alone among the players in this group, likely would have been honored with a retired number one day even if his life hadn’t been cut short.

Questionable Retirements

NBA franchises have different standards when it comes to retiring numbers. Not counting Shaq, the Lakers have retired the numbers of 7 players. All 7 players are in the Hall of Fame. The Dallas Mavericks, by comparison, retired #15 in honor of Brad Davis. (And I mean no disrespect to Brad Davis.)

Nate Thurmond was a great player, but not with Cleveland. Thurmond played two seasons with the Cavs (and they weren’t even complete seasons), never averaging more than 5.5 points per game. The Cavs retired his #42 anyway. (Thurmond grew up in Akron and went to college at Bowling Green. Perhaps the Cavaliers wanted to recognize his overall contribution to basketball in northern Ohio.)

The Portland Trailblazers have retired a whopping 7 numbers belonging to players on the 1977 championship team. They would have been safe stopping with Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas; but they kept going, retiring the numbers of Dave Twardzik, Lionel Hollins, Larry Steele, Bob Gross, and Lloyd Neal. All of these players had nice NBA careers, but I’m not sure that any are deserving of having their number hanging up in the Rose Garden.

The 76ers (and Others) Have Some Work to Do

Who is the greatest NBA player not to have his number retired by an NBA team? It’s either Dolph Schayes or George Mikan. (I’m not counting current players or players who have been out of the league for less than five years.)

The Lakers honored Mikan and other greats from the team’s days in Minneapolis with a banner, but they haven’t properly retired his number. I’d love to see the Timberwolves hang #99 in the Target Center, since Mikan played almost his entire career in Minnesota. But David Kahn isn’t coming to me for advice.

Schayes spent most of his career with the Syracuse Nationals, before the team moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers. While Schayes played only a single year in Philadelphia, he is without question one of the franchise’s best players, and he led the team to its first title in 1955. But if you’re surprised that the 76ers never retired #55 in honor of Dolph Schayes, don’t be. The Sixers still haven’t gotten around to retiring Moses Malone’s #2. And go ahead and add #3 to the list of numbers that Philadelphia needs to take out of circulation.

I’ll be curious to see if any team ever retires Gary Payton’s number. Like Mikan and Schayes, Payton spent his best years with a franchise that has since moved. Payton has said that he doesn’t want his number retired in Oklahoma City, but it needs to be retired somewhere. (And “somewhere” doesn’t mean Milwaukee, Boston, Los Angeles, or Miami.) Rightly or wrongly, the Thunder still recognize the 6 numbers retired when the franchise was in Seattle. That’s why Kendrick Perkins had to give up #43 when he was traded to OKC. That number forever belongs to Sonics center Jack Sikma.

Speaking of the Sonics, I’m a little surprised that they never retired #24 in honor of Dennis Johnson. While D.J. only played 4 seasons in Seattle, and his best years were in Phoenix and Boston, in 1979 he willed the Sonics to their first and only title. The problem for Johnson is that Spencer Haywood wore #24 in the early 1970s and has since had his number retired. But retiring the same number twice isn’t unprecedented. The Knicks twice retired #15 in honor of Dick McGuire and Earl Monroe. Maybe when the NBA returns to Seattle, the new Sonics can hang a second #24 next to Payton’s #20.

Retirement Trends That Need to Stop

There are two:

1. There is no reason to honor a coach, owner, broadcaster, or other contributor by retiring a number.

Hang a banner bearing the person’s name and/or likeness, erect a statue, whatever. No Hawks player should be barred from wearing #17 just because 17 was the channel number of Ted Turner’s first television network. Nor should any Detroit Piston have to avoid #2 because Chuck Daly coached the team to two titles.

Retiring a coach’s number of wins is even worse. There’s no point retiring a number that isn’t a valid uniform number to begin with. (“I always wore #529 in college and high school, but now that I’m with the Pacers, I’m happy to give up that number in honor of Slick Leonard.”)

2. Honoring the fans by retiring #6 (for the “sixth man”) isn’t as clever as you think it is.

I’m talking to you, Sacramento and Orlando. No fan has ever looked up at the #6 hanging in the rafters and shed a tear. And no fan has ever called or texted his family and friends saying, “Be sure to watch the game tonight. They’re retiring my number.”

**********

* – #13, Wilt; #22, Elgin Baylor; #25, Gail Goodrich; #32, Magic; #33, Kareem; #42, James Worthy; #44, Jerry West.

Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley.



About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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