Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why the NBA can't retire No. 23 (or any number)

Since last year when he was elected to the Hall of Fame there's been a debate on if the NBA should retire Michael Jordan's No. 23. I'm gonna keep this simple. NO!

LeBron James announced that he will switch his jersey to No. 6 next year because he thinks the jersey should be retired. Hey, why not? The best player to ever lace them up should get that honor right? NO!!!!

So let's get this straight. Players want to equate Michael Jordan with Jackie Robinson? They forgot why Jackie got his number retired in the first place. Let's school these guys who are no older than me.

Jackie Robinson integrated not just baseball in 1947. He was the first Black player to play in an organized professional sports league in the modern era (word to Moses Walker). He inspired Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights Movement. Two years after World War II would inspire a generation of Black leaders and Black voices to speak up, Jackie took the first post-war step in proving that we were equals.

Jackie wasn't the greatest second baseman ever. He did introduce some of that Negro Leagues flair when he stole bases but he was far from the greatest base stealer ever. What he did was play the game, play it hard and make a giant statement that yes, a Black man was not inferior to his White counterparts. He was an American pioneer.

He also stayed active after his career. He got involved in the Civil Rights Movement while also speaking out against racism in baseball. He supported Curt Flood as he attacked baseball's reserve clause and actually took the stand during the trial - something no current player did. His last public appearance at the 1972 World Series advocated for a Black manager.

So NO! Not in my sports world is Michael Jordan on par with Jackie Robinson or deserves his treatment. But like Detective Columbo, there's one more thing. Call this the Wayne Gretzky Corollary.

"But Mr. Virgo, Wayne Gretzky has his number retired. He's the greatest player in his sport like Michael Jordan is. He had the same impact that Jordan had around the same time. He changed the game with his skill and IQ" Blah Blah Blah

The difference between Gretzky and Jordan is simple. Gretzky is a national icon in Canada, a hockey prodigy who elevated a nation. He helped make hockey popular in the United States and did far more for the game off the court in being an ambassador.

Michael Jordan did a lot on the court and was perhaps the most influential pitchman in modern sports, especially for Black athletes in the last 25 years. On the court, he was the best. Off the court, he sold a lot of products but was invisible on social issues and did not use his platform to elevate anything except the dreams to make money and follow his lead.

Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell. All of them deserve their numbers to be retired for the same reasons as Michael Jordan. Great stats, impacted the game like no other and were champions.

But when you start retiring numbers league-wide based on achievements, you cheapen why it was done in the first place. Robinson's number was retired in 1997 because his impact was bigger than the game in terms of American history. Michael Jordan's impact was also bigger than the game but it was about making money, not social change.

There's a lot more I can say but this should wrap it up.

Jackie made history by fighting for the right to play as an equal. Michael made history by convincing America to not be scared of a Black man selling them products. Both important but one clearly more than the other. Let's not confuse on-court achievements with something bigger in the grander scheme of things.


  1. You forgot one element: The NBA is player-driven. They market superstars. They don't care about social impact. They care about individual marketing - it's WHAT they do.

    Michael Jordan personified what the NBA wants as a product: An individual that is highly marketable. He was in movies. He sold shoes. He sold cologne. He sold sports drinks. He sold underwear.

    The NBA will never be about teams. It's about LeBron. It's about Kobe. It's about D-Wade. It's about Superman. In another 10 years, there will be a new crop of names - but NONE of those names has ever been a name like "Jordan".

    Jordan was a superstar among superstars. He won championships on his own back. His stories will be told forever. Winning with a fever in Utah. "The Shot" that no Cavs fan will ever forget.

    Michael Jordan wasn't like Wilt, Bill, Magic, or Larry. You know why? Because when people mention Magic, they're comparing him to Michael. They're not trying to justify that Michael was "as good as Magic". Every comparison is: Were they as good as Michael?

    Answer: No. No one has been on his level. Ever.

    LeBron might come close. And if he does, and we're all "Witness", we might see #6 retired someday too.

  2. So I usually stay out of the sports posts but Gretzky didn't elevate Canada :p he elevated a sport in Canada that inpsired a shift in the way NHL was veiwed in participating countries.

    Nobody in canada that doesn't give a hoot about NHL/Hockey has been affected in any way by Gretzky's success. *raises hand* My taxes arent any lower.. and he's now American anyway.. SMH lol

    Okay so being serious for a sec, you have a great point and this is why I'm commenting. Like in every other thing in life and the history of time, duplication/immitation cheapens the original "thing" whatever that may be.

    But to MJ fans, who weren't around for the Jackie Robinson impact on America, Civil Rights in America specifically and Sports (I guess) MJ is just as big of an impact in race relations, wealth accumulation, ambasadorship blah blah blah to quote you.. or yadi yadi yadda.. you know what I mean, he was a big figure.

    So at the end of the day I don't think it should be retired, but I understand your point and I understand thirs. Without actually teaching the youth and value of the "original" then it's just a reference, a thing without real credence or presence. It is being devaled by even being forgotten even though MJ's very wealth/history is due to that same "thing"

    I could go on but I'll end it there.. it's definitely a catch 22 in many ways.

  3. Shane, the NBA has definitely been about the individual since Magic-Larry and NBC started promoting individuals over the team. But you said it all with this - MJ was a great product that helped the NBA become global.

    Neither of us will underestimate MJ's impact in our lifetime. But when you look at the grander scheme in America, MJ will never be people's heroes like Jackie Robinson. He's a hero to athletes, Jackie's story is heroic to all people. LeBron's No. 6 will never be retired IMO because No. 6 will always be Bill Russell - the greatest winner in American sports and a social pioneer in a tough city of Boston.

    Naija - not bad for a sports take :) Thanks for the insight on Gretzky - its all about education. Younger fans underestimate Jackie by saying MJ's number should be retired league-wide. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired, no one dared suggest it and he had one of the greatest careers in any sport.

  4. The only athlete you could ever put on the same level is also known by one name.


    And in my opinion - Tiger dominates in his sport more than MJ ever did. And he broke a silent color barrier.

    Why didn't anyone mention him?