Retired jerseys for retired players

Last week King of Basketball LeBron James threw down the proverbial gauntlet when he announced that after the current 2009-10 season he would be changing his jersey from 23 to 6 in an attempt to encourage all NBA players to forever shy away from the number made famous by all-time great Michael Jordan. The move is not unheard of; virtually all the major sports retire jersey numbers on a fairly regular basis. But why, in an effort to honour the name of an exceptional athlete, is it so important to forever remove an associated number from future franchise eligibility?

Jordan’s number 23 is currently retired by his former Chicago Bulls, and to date there are only a precious few professional athletes who have ever had a number retired league-wide. In 1997, MLB permanently removed Jackie Robinson’s number 42 from active play within the league, allowing only those already wearing the number to keep doing so until the time of their retirement. Coming into the league in 1947, Robinson was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, breaking the colour barrier and eventually helping the Brooklyn Dodgers win the World Series in 1955. In his career, Robinson won Rookie of the Year and League MVP awards and was selected six times to play in the MLB All-Star game.

Three years later, in 2000, the NHL retired Wayne Gretzky’s number, 99, from use by any league team. As a forward, Gretzky won four Stanley Cups, broke nearly every scoring record and almost single handedly expanded the brand of hockey tenfold within the U.S. market.

As far as franchises paying tribute to players, the first time an athlete ever had their number retired from use by a single team was in 1934 when the Toronto Maple Leafs retired the team’s number 6 in honour of right-wing Ace Bailey who led the Leafs twice in scoring before suffering a career-ending injury at the hands of Boston Bruins defensemen Eddie Shore. The injury was one of the most severe and most well publicized in the history of the sport and eventually, by way of a charity event in Bailey’s name, led to the advent of the yearly All-Star game. Coincidentally, Shore’s number 2 has been retired for the Bruins for more than 60 years.

While league-wide retirements are extremely rare, individual franchises tend to be a little more liberal in bestowing such an honour. The NFL’s Chicago Bears currently have 13 player numbers retired from their roster, the New York Yankees a total of 16 and the NBA’s Boston Celtics a grand total of 21 numbers unavailable for active play. A common, albeit distant, concern among fans is that some of the more successful sports teams will simply run out of numbers and eventually either have to unretire certain jerseys or start getting a little more creative with their numerical allotments.

But none of this really helps to explain the thought process behind actually retiring jersey numbers.

“I just think what Michael Jordan has done for the game has to be recognized in some way,” said James, explaining his own reasoning for wanting Jordan’s number retired. “There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade, you name all the best players in the league right now and the last 10 years, there would be none of us without Michael Jordan.”

If you’ll allow me to get analytical for the briefest of moments, recognition is an active process of memory; in order to sustain a memory and differentiate one object from another it is necessary for us to acknowledge the qualities that make it distinctly unique. With this in mind the act of retiring numbers might best be seen as a psychological safeguard against the fear of actually forgetting these players and their unique accomplishments. In the world of professional sports the act of retiring numbers serves a purpose akin to tying a band around your finger to ensure you don’t forget to take out the garbage; something must be altered in order that something else might be remembered.

In the case of the NBA and the number 23, James may actually have a good chance at getting Jordan’s number honoured if he continues his grassroots player movement. When the NHL retired Gretzky’s 99 from league use in 2000, the move was basically a foregone conclusion. What made the decision all the easier to make, however, was the fact that for nearly 20 years after Gretzky had joined the league no other player dared to adorn himself with the same number. Long before it was actually made official the players effectively retired the number themselves; no one would touch it.

Not one to be left out of the mix, this past week His Airness himself thanked James but also made his opinion on the matter clear. “Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell all those guys should have their jerseys retired, too,” said Jordan. “I understand [the] 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.”

Interestingly, in this case it appears that one of the all time greats prefers to be in good company, rather than in a class all his own.