A Game of Numbers
The J(ames) B(asketball) A(ssociation): Where blanket bans on the No. 23 happens.
by Brad Graham
Is everyone over this possible number switch by LeBron James and his desire to have the NBA retire Michael Jordan’s famous No. 23? After reading this you won’t be.
Firstly, the comments themselves. Out of respect to Jordan, LeBron stated that he’ll change his jersey number from No. 23 to No. 6 following the 2009-10 NBA season. Fair enough? Almost. Except… This is King James. This in the internet age. This is the era of microscopic analysis and painfully detailed chatter. So every word, every press conference and every waking minute that LBJ lives outside of his multi million-dollar Ohio mansion he lends himself to junior high science class dissection. Fair? Hardly. But this remains the curse and blessing of the 24/7 media cycle.
You’ve all read the comment a million times by now… “He can’t get the logo… if he can’t, something has to be done… I feel like no NBA player should wear 23… I’m starting a petition… If I’m not going to wear No. 23, then nobody else should… blah, blah, blah…”
LBJ has his heart in the right place, that much is crystal (clear) but where he missteps is his sudden authoritarian voice God complex that denies anyone from tarnishing MJ’s number’s legacy… read it again, that’s what he’s talking about. Not honoring Mike but denying anyone from enjoying the numerals he wore. What happens to No. 45 then? Is that fair game?
What made LeBron’s comment so startling is no one knew how to deal with them. We’ve never lived in a post Hall of Fame Jordan world before. This is new to all of us, and like parents with their first child, the basketball world is going to misstep from time to time, LBJ included.
Importantly though, it’s become obvious in the time since LBJ said, “I just think what Michael Jordan has done for the game has to be recognized some way soon,” that hoop heads (with an opinion that needs to be heard), aren’t upset with LBJ wanting to raise the glass for a life long toast to MJ. Rather they’re insulted that his personal choice of admiration is simply further enshrinement of Jordan’s folklore to passive hoop fans and not a reflection of his true placement.
No self respecting basketball enthusiast born before 1986 (which makes them 23, get it?) honestly believes LBJ’s cue should be followed. In fact, they’ve often been the first voices to speak out and highlight the reality that a league wide blanket over wearing the famous number 23 would result in the need to retire the numbers of Earvin Johnson (32); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird (33); George Mikan (99); Wilt Chamberlain (13); Oscar Robertson (0); Bill Russell and Julius Erving (6); as well as many others who have left their fingerprints on the NBA. MJ himself, who spoke on NBA TV, shares this view, stating, “Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, all those guys should have their jerseys retired, too. I understand [LeBron’s] gesture, but I am in the same group as those guys so I wouldn’t want to see my jersey retired unless you retire those guys.”
Given LBJ’s age, not everything he says (like the rest of us mere mortals), is always well thawed out. It’s ignorant to believe that Jordan is the only basketball player to have had such a dynamic and lasting cross cultural effect. Yao Ming’s No. 11 is just as culturally (and even more politically) significant to the People’s Republic of China than Jordan’s No. 23 is to the United States. Despite being the Rolls Royce of basketball players, MJ still doesn’t strike compassion like Croatian superstar Drazen Petrovic in his homeland.
Side Note One: Not that these things should ever be taken literally, but when James stated “there would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn’t Michael Jordan first,” surely he wasn’t suggesting that Jordan actually fathered the game’s three biggest perimeter stars?
Of course not. But LBJ is suggesting that contemporary basketball owes it’s place solely to Michael Jordan. While this may be true for many millions of fans, the real influence of Jordan has ultimately been felt in the home entertainment market, which helped to ensure NBA entertainment’s market share to date. Equally, the sneaker industry would not be what it is today without the formulae: MJ x Nike x Tinker Hatfield x Spike Lee x David Stern’s governance.
It’s somewhat upsetting to see James, a student of the game, reduce the history, the culture and the importance both have played in so many lives down to just Jordan. If Jordan teamed with Dr. James Naismith to invent the game, it makes complete sense to have him as the games greatest icon. But let’s not forget that the rich history of the game is the springboard Michael was allowed to jump from.
As for the number “23” itself, what happens to professional women who elect to wear the number as tribute to their hoop hero? What about all the Euro / international Leagues where players are rocking Mike’s number? And all the High School and Collegiate basketball athletes who show love on a daily basis? Should there be a blanket ban on 23 there as well, out of respect to Mike?
So what LeBron James is really saying is, “On the NBA timber, you’re allowed to have MJ on your feet but you’re not allowed to have him on your back.” Go figure.
Sorry LBJ but Michael Jordan isn’t Jackie Robinson. In many ways, he isn’t even Magic Johnson or Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain or Julius Erving or even Allen Iverson (to a degree), or any number of individual standouts who’ve respectively blazed a trail that extends beyond status, fame, influence or outcome.
James’ statement is no different to asking Golf pros to refrain from wearing red shirts on the final day of tournament play because Tiger Woods means so much to contemporary Golf and we don’t want any pro to tarnish his legacy. The lesson in all of this: Don’t ever think one player is better, greater or more important than the game, period. Jordan reiterated this himself, “The NBA lasts a lot longer than one particular person.”
Should the number not be allowed at any level? Even it’s worn (or not worn) as a tribute to Jordan? If Jordan’s reach touched everyone, surely the suggested ban couldn’t be limited to just the US Men’s Pro league because as big as the NBA is, it’s not the only fish in the basketball pond (despite being the biggest) and LBJ should know that by now (he’s been to back-to-back Summer Olympics, right?)
Changing jersey number isn’t a problem, it’s just it was coupled with his desire to have the NBA forcefully retire Jordan’s number. If the NBA does in fact follow LBJ’s cue, and does retire the number league wide, what does that tell us about LBJ’s reach and the inability of the NBA to remain bigger than any one athlete? Of course all this is pure conjecture but does this mean LBJ also has the power to petition an over throwing of the NBA dress code? How about the age limit? What’s even more troubling is that LBJ isn’t using his tremendous influence to speak out about any real injustice like the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and his housing discrimination case involving apartment rentals.
League wide retirement is highly unlikely, especially since the NBA has given the decisions on retiring athlete numbers to their respective franchises. Plus, it’s not like Jordan carried the cross… but to James (and the iGeneration), he did everything but.
Switching gears and looking at the uniform change itself, James should and will become the most popular NBA uniform, in terms of NBA Store sales, as everyone pushes little children and fragile grandmothers out of their way in an attempt to nab the latest apparel with the letters J-A-M-E-S. No doubt it’ll become the NBA’s Charlie and Chocolate Factory “Golden Ticket” rush, as fans worldwide show one another that their love for all things LBJ is greater than ever.
On a pure business level, the number switch is a great move. Kevin Garnett’s relocation (via his 2007 trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves) to the Boston Celtics is one example of how realignment to a more exciting franchise can ignite uniform sales. In KG’s case, his Celts jersey tripled that of his T-Wolves uniform and saw him become just the first Celtic in over five years (Paul Pierce being the last) to reach top five jersey sales.
With that in mind, no one should ever accuse LBJ of switching numbers for business reasons, not exclusively anyway. Adidas, not James’ current offcourt employer Nike, benefits from the switch. Sure. Nike reaps the rewards of LBJ’s continual growth and fame but when it comes down to it, over the counter uniform sales are adidas’ game and the three tiers of NBA jersey’s remain a staple for basketball fans (a large reason why adidas secured their 11 year NBA partnership).
According to the NBA’s NYC Store, LeBron James hasn’t led the annual NBA Jersey sales report card since his 2003/04 rookie season. Surely the change to No. 6 will help him regain top dog honors, much like it did for Kobe when he decided 24 was a better fit than eight. Surprisingly, LBJ has fallen to Shaquille O’Neal (2005), Dwyane Wade (2006), Kobe Bryant (2007, 2009) and the aforementioned Kevin Garnett (2008), respectively in jersey sales rankings. Number six should see that run eliminated.
On the business side of things, everybody wins with the LBJ switch. The NBA, it’s apparel partner, his respective current (or new) franchise, retailers, online stores, knock off specialists and memorabilia outlets will all profit. This also helps keeps things relevant because once you own your favourite athlete’s home and away uniform, the only way any of the respective aforementioned channels can muster repeat purchases is to create alternates, themed jerseys and throwbacks. This doesn’t necessarily imply that the creation of said third and even fourth jersey’s are solely created for financial purposes, but the cash injections they provide are definitely a welcomed side effect.
More so, if you’re favourite player also happens to be selected to the annual NBA All-Star team, or happens to represent their nation at a World Championships or Summer Olympic Games, you could be looking at a new jersey for every season they’re a pro. Lets say, for arguments sake that you’re the world’s biggest LeBron James fan and your mission is to own everyone of his playing / team jersey’s. That means that from 2003 until this season, you would own at least a dozen variations on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ uniforms; at least five All-Star Game uniforms; multiple Summer Olympic uniforms from both the ‘04 and ‘08 Games, respectively, and most likely, his High School St. Mary’s St. Vincent Fighting Irish jersey, because you were a fan the day after you witnessed his first SLAM magazine feature.
That’s a staggering 20 plus LBJ uniforms. Say you purchased the $75 swingman versions of said LBJ jersey’s (not the complete uniforms, just they jersey), you would have spent roughly $1500 trying to tell the world you support King James. Multiply that by the number of James fanatics, add the costs of his signature series sneakers and you have a very rough idea of why it’s good to be in the business of LBJ.
In 2008, the NBA released their top ten selling jersey’s to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the NBA’s Flagship store, LeBron James finished fourth behind obvious inclusions, Jordan, Kobe and Allen Iverson, respectively. James’ rank is amazing given his jersey had only been selling for five years.
What’s not being discussed is the fact that LeBron isn’t shamelessly grabbing at money. He doesn’t directly profit from increased jersey sales. To the best of my knowledge, whoever is the apparel license partner of the NBA doesn’t pay a portion of all earning from every uniform sold to the name that appears on the back, those sort of royalties just don’t appear to exist, or they’ve never been discussed in any circles that aren’t stealth.
Side note 2: Basketball conspiracy theorists must have become simultaneously erect following this latest (overblown) LBJ news story. Reading the first reports, it’s as if these comments became the definitive evidence needed to complete the join-the-dots image that’ll see LBJ land in either Mikhail Prokhorov’s New Jersey Brooklyn Nets, or in Manhattan, as a member James L. Dolan’s world famous Knickerbockers. To further whet the appetites of conspiracy theorist, there are only two teams (to date) with the No. 23 retired: the Chicago Bulls (makes sense) and the Miami Heat (defies logic). The switch to No. 6 also makes complete sense if you’re planning to hang your uniform in either locker room next season…
Of course none of this chatter by the King (or about LeBron) is nearly as interesting as determining where he’ll commence his New Era (pun intended, aka his best fit), once his 2010 free agency rolls around, and once it does, don’t be surprised if he’s (not in New York, or New Jersey, or Miami, or Chicago but he becomes) a member of the… Houston Rockets. Take that, conspiracy theorists.
Brad Graham’s a hoop culture aficionado turned basketball asylum seeker. He’s currently attempting to flee the desolate wastelands of the once proud Australian basketball scene for greener pastures. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.