A misguided attempt to honor Air Jordan

There are some sports personalities that transcend the sports pages.  Names that even a casual sports follower – perhaps even non-sports followers – can identify and place in context.  When a story pops up involving three of those from three different generations, it’s worth a deeper look.

We’ll get to Jackie Robinson, Michael Jordan, & LeBron James in a moment, but first there is this.

For the non-sports fan, the notion of “retiring” numbers must seem a little silly.  And maybe it should for those of us who do pay attention to these things. 

But for the record, the first professional sports athlete with a retired number appears to have been Ace Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 14, 1934.  For more on that incredible story, click here).

And since the day that Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe announced to the crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens that “No other player on a Maple Leaf hockey team will ever again wear the number 6“, the sports world has seen a veritable explosion in retired jerseys.

Bringing us to today’s news. 

Of all the jersey numbers to be retired in the world of professional sports, none has had a more profound impact than that of Major League Baseball’s mandate in 1997 to retire the number 42 among all of its member clubs. 

The significance of the gesture, retiring the number worn by the immortal Jackie Robinson, was to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the breaking of baseball’s color barrier.  It was a bold strike of genius, to be certain, for Commissioner Bud Selig and the clubs of MLB and was universally applauded.

Not quite as genius, and much-less universally applauded, was the announcement by LeBron James last night that he was giving up his Cleveland Cavalier #23 jersey at the end of the season and was asking other NBA players to do the same in honor of all-time great Michael Jordan, who famously wore that number with the Chicago Bulls during his stellar career. 

James’ logic goes something like this: “If you see 23, you think about Michael Jordan.  You see game-winning shots, you think about Michael Jordan; you see guys fly through the air, you think about Michael Jordan; you see fly kicks, you think about Michael Jordan. He did so much, it has to be recognized, and not just by putting him in the Hall of Fame.”

Ummm, OK.

LeBron James

LeBron James is "retiring" his #23 at the end of this season. Will the rest of the NBA follow?

Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy was asked about LeBron’s decision to “start a petition” for the league-wide retirement of Jordan’s number. 

Here was his response: “It’s a nice gesture, but he (Jordan) is not Jackie Robinson. Baseball did it because it had historical significance. There actually were guys before Michael who could play the game. Then you should retire numbers that (Bill) Russell, Wilt (Chamberlain), and certainly Oscar (Robertson) wore. I understand LeBron didn’t grow up watching those guys, but still.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.  I can’t understand the logic behind this one at all.  James is concerned because Jordan “can’t get the logo” (designed around the image of the great Jerry West), but there’s got to be a better way of honoring his hero. 

To be fair, Jordan is probably the hero of every player in the modern NBA – and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

But a leaguewide number retirement should be reserved for players with the social impact of a Jackie Robinson and those players are few and far between.  Michael Jordan does not fall into that category and it’s likely that no NBA player ever will, LeBron James included.

Back to Van Gundy for the last (but, probably not final) word on this one: “Michael was a great player, and if the NBA wants to decide that every other team in the league has to worship him, then that’s up to them. Would I be for that? No.”

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~ by acm213 on November 13, 2009.

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