No To Retiring Jordan’s No. 23

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - November 25, 2009
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Michael Jordan: better as a player than as an executive

The NBA has spoken - although not with great conviction. League spokesman Tim Frank said number retirements have been left to the teams, but he didn’t go so far as to say the discussion about whether the NBA will retire Michael Jordan’s No. 23 won’t resurface in the future. No one seems to be concerned about the history of the 45 he wore upon his first return to the NBA.

Six years after his Hall of Fame career limped to a finish, clothed in the strange-looking blue of the Washington Wizards, Jordan remains the face of the league and a valuable financial tool from which the NBA has yet to separate itself.

For that reason, it is not beyond the realm of possibility the league will reverse course and err in awarding Jordan an honor never before considered for any other player.

Only Major League Baseball and the NHL have found it necessary to forever ban the use of a number.

Halting the further use of Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was a no-brainer. The number and the player with whom it is attached stand as a symbol of not just athletic growth, but of the maturity of our national consciousness. Robinson, and the gentlemen who immediately followed, suffered indignities Jordan could only imagine. For that, and for the doors they opened, they deserve special recognition.

Consideration for a league-wide retirement for Jordan is more in line with the NHL putting a stop to anyone wearing Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99. Like Jordan, Gretzky was his sport’s biggest star who greatly broadened the game’s visibility and popularity. Also like Jordan, Gretzky was just one of a handful of amazing athletes who lifted their sport. It seems strange the NBA would want to retire No. 23 and let any bench warmer don Oscar Robinson’s No. 1, Dr. J’s No. 6 or, speaking of No. 99, the greatest player of the first half century, George Mikan. And doesn’t it seem bizarre that while The Great One’s number has been retired, Mr. Hockey’s No. 9 remains open for use?

Before No. 23 is permanently banned, one would have to consider if, in fact, others are not more deserving. Phil Jackson, who likes the idea, cautioned that such a move might step on the toes of Magic and Bird. Charles Barkley was even more direct, saying the pair had a bigger impact on the sport than his good friend. Sir Charles is correct.

No one can deny the global impact that Jordan has had. Even to this day he is likely the second-most internationally recognized U.S. athlete behind Tiger Woods. But had it not been for the country boy from French Lick or the city kid from Flint, there may not have been much of a league to promote. The NBA before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson was a ghost league of tape-delayed games, disinterested fans and economic uncertainty. This became embarrassingly clear during the league’s 50th anniversary celebration when the game’s greatest half hundred were announced. Unlike baseball, which has warehouses of archival footage, the NBA lacked the video evidence documenting its history. The reason was simple. No interest meant no TV and therefore no tape. That changed after the 1979 NCAA Championship Game starring Magic and Bird. Jordan was one of its beneficiaries.

A cottage industry has arisen since Jordan retired. The goal is to promote and grow his legacy and to make sure no one dares to challenge him as the sport’s all-time greatest. To even suggest anyone is close enough to produce howls of laughter and looks of disdain directed at those ignorant few. The first effort of these NBA Stepford Wives was to have Jordan replace Jerry West on the league’s logo. Like the number-retirement issue, this whacked out idea is also built on faulty logic.

West was a Hall of Fame player who went on to become one of the best executives in league history. Jordan, who was better on the court, was a failure as an executive with no eye for talent or an understanding about how to correctly run an NBA franchise. Giving that honor to Jordan would be a slap in the face to West.

Michael Jordan deserves accolades for what he accomplished on the basketball court, but singling him out while ignoring others would be a mistake and an insult. Not to mention raising the ire of fans in New York, Detroit and Utah, who may be forced to look upon a banner embossed with the name of their greatest nemesis hanging in a position of honor.

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