Thanks to the achievements of the players who wore them, certain NBA jersey numbers have become synonymous with championship wins, MVP victories and spectacular scoring feats.
With the 2019-20 NBA season on hold for the foreseeable future, it is an opportune moment to explore a selection of the NBA’s most iconic numbers.
In the first feature in our series, we take a look at two of basketball’s greatest players, both of whom wore No 23.
Jordan’s iconic No 23 Chicago Bulls jersey
Michael Jordan hasn’t taken a shot in anger since 2003 yet it is a testament to his legacy that his Chicago Bulls 23 jersey remains an utterly iconic NBA item.
That’s due to the indelible mark Jordan left on what he always lovingly referred to as “the game of basketball” – courtesy of his six NBA championships, five league MVPs, six Finals MVPs, 14 All-Star selections, 11 All-NBA selections and 10 scoring titles.
Michael Jordan celebrates with the Larry O’Brien trophy
It’s more than likely we’ll never again see the relentless, intense, dominant brand of winning that characterised Jordan’s NBA career. He led his team to victory in every NBA Finals in which he played (1991-1993 and 1996-1998) and was named Finals MVP each time. Even when riddled with flu (against the Utah Jazz in game five of the 1997 NBA Finals), Jordan simply refused to lose and carried the Bulls to victory.
Jordan led the league in scoring 10 times, including a season averaging 37.6 points per game (1987), a feat unmatched by anyone not named Wilt Chamberlain in NBA history (although James Harden ran him close with 36.1 PPG in 2018-19). He adapted his game as he got older, transforming from an uber-athletic, uber-aggressive dunker to a deadly scorer from mid-range, particularly with his trademark turnaround jump shot.
Relive every spectacular slam as Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins duel at 1988 Slam Dunk Contest in Chicago
Off the court, the serial winner would rely on bizarre methods to motivate himself, feeding the media stories about opposition players who styled themselves as “Jordan stoppers”. He would then read the published articles to fire himself up before games.
The Bulls retired Jordan’s 23 jersey on November 1, 1994, 18 months after Jordan stepped away from basketball to pursue a career in baseball. When he made his comeback – announced via a two-word fax sent to the media simply reading ‘I’m back’ – in March 1995, Jordan initially wore No 45 as a result.
Michael Jordan torches the Boston Celtics for 63 points in the 1986 NBA playoffs
Jordan was back in his No 23 at the start of the 1995-96 season and led the Bulls to a then-NBA-best 72-10 record, kicking off Chicago’s second title ‘three-peat’.
When Jordan’s tenure as a Bull officially came to a close in January 1999 amid a season lockout as the team that dominated the 1990s broke up with the players and coach Phil Jackson in open conflict with the front office, number 23 returned to retirement in Chicago.
But that wasn’t the last time Jordan’s 23 would be retired by a team…
LeBron James in action for Cleveland in the 2018 NBA Finals
Remember when LeBron James took his “talents to South Beach”, moving from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat in 2010 free agency? Remember how he switched his trademark No 23 to No 6?
That’s because, in April 2003, the Heat retired No 23 in honour of Michael Jordan – who had just wrapped up his second comeback as a member of the Washington Wizards – to acknowledge his career achievements and contributions to basketball. Despite the fact he never played a minute for them!
Watch LeBron James and Michael Jordan go basket for basket in this shot-making masterclass
James won the first two of his three NBA championships wearing No 6 in Miami but was back in 23 as he delivered what he had always promised – and what meant the most to him – an NBA title with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.
James has three Finals MVP awards to his name from those championship wins but, unlike Jordan, has also experienced defeat on the league’s greatest stage, once during his first tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers (2007), twice with the Miami Heat (2011, 2014) and three times in his second stint with the Cavs (2015, 2017, 2018).
LeBron James roars in celebration after scoring for the Lakers
Only a handful of players – including the legendary Bill Russell with 10 – from the dominant Boston Celtics team of the 1960s can better James’ nine Finals appearances. But the league had just 10 teams in those days. Now there are 30.
LeBron’s consistent ability to reach the NBA’s top table, regardless of the outcome, illustrates his greatness.
James’ best scoring season (30.0 points per game in 2007/08) earned him his sole scoring title, but he has never been simply an out-and-out scorer. A cerebral passer, James instantly calculates the best play in a given situation and makes it, whether that is a crunch-time shot or giving up the ball to an open team-mate.
Watch the basket that took LeBron James past Michael Jordan into fourth place on the NBA all-time scoring list
Now playing alongside Anthony Davis, James has evolved once more, playing point guard for the Western Conference-leading Lakers and leading the NBA in assists per game (10.6).
Even as James passed Jordan’s record for all-time postseason points in 2017, he insisted: “I don’t want to be labelled a scorer, I’m a playmaker.”
Relive LeBron James and Michael Jordan’s greatest playoff moments
Given Jordan’s superior scoring prowess, it might seem strange that James has surpassed several of Jordan’s scoring landmarks. That speaks to James’ consistency and longevity. Nobody, not even Jordan, can match the sustained excellence James has offered over his 17 seasons to date.
It is feasible James plays at an All-Star level for two full decades. If he remains a 20-plus-point per game scorer, he will pass Kareem-Abdul Jabbar at the top of the all-time scoring list and close his career with an all-but-unmatchable legacy.
Take a look at the best plays from LeBron James from this season’s NBA
The Cavaliers retiring James’ 23 jersey is all-but-guaranteed and you’d expect the Heat to retire his No 6 jersey too. Should he deliver a title in Los Angeles, it would be no surprise to see the Lakers raise 23 to their rafters in Staples Center.
Wilt Chamberlain is the only NBA player to have his jersey number retired by three different teams. When King James finally surrenders his throne, he could well be the second member of that exclusive club.
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