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By Justin Rivers Summer Staff Writer
An athlete’s number is more than just one or two digits stitched onto either side of their jersey.
For some NBA players, jersey numbers carry personal and anecdotal significance, while for others, it is something haphazardly selected. Whatever the reason for which an NBA player dons a specific jersey number, when the select few ascend into the annals of NBA lore, whether it be by crushing the hopes and dreams of Utah Jazz fans with “The Last Shot” in the ’98 Finals or with “The Stepover” in the ‘01 Finals, players carry more than just their name, stats, and accolades with them; they carry their number with them, too. It is their number that is suspended in the rafters, forever immortalizing them and their accomplishments. Everyone recalls MJ’s 23 – even the 45 – and Magic’s 32; however, I dare to ask what are the best numbers in NBA history? Which number is so star-studded, so accolade-rich, so successful that it stands out above the rest? Once and for all, what are the all-time, greatest numbers? Here is my top 5 along with, in no particular order, the top three players to have worn each number:
Bill Russell (1956-1969)
Bill Russell personified the word “legendary.” As the cornerstone of the Celtics’s dynasty in the 1960s, Russell, a 6-foot-10, 215-pound center, garnered more rings than he has fingers, amassing a record 11 NBA Championships in his 13 seasons. Prior to his NBA career, he secured 2 NCAA titles (1955, 1956), being named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 1955, while attending the University of San Francisco; plus, he won an Olympic Gold Medal in Melbourne in 1956. In the NBA, the man averaged 22.5 rebounds during his career. Yes, 22.5 rebounds! The 4x Rebounding Champion, 5x MVP, 11x All-NBA, and 12x All Star was widely considered the G.O.A.T. until the ascent of “His Airness,” Michael Jeffrey Jordan. The only thing that can otherwise be held against this Hall of Famer is the fact that the NBA of the ’50s and ’60s consisted of only between 8 to 15 total teams – compared to the 30 teams we have today.
Julius Erving (1971-1987)
As a fellow donner of the number 6 jersey, Julius “Dr. J” Erving was no slouch. Prior to his NBA career, Erving averaged 26.3 PPG and 20.2 RPG during his two collegiate seasons at UMass, and, during his five seasons in the American Basketball Association, the 6-foot-7, 210-pound small forward led the league in scoring three times, was a 3x MVP, in three straight years, and a 2x ABA Champion. After the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, Dr. J became a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. During his time with the 6ers, the 1981 NBA MVP led them to the NBA Finals four times in seven years, including their 1983 title win. In the fourth game of the 1980 NBA Finals, Dr. J made his legendary “Baseline Move” that is – ’til this day – one of the most iconic shots in NBA history.
Neil Johnston (1951-1959)
At first site, the resume of the 6-foot-8, 210-pound Philadelphia Warriors center Neil Johnston is certainly not as robust as fellow 6s Bill Russell and Dr. J (like, c’mon. Bill Russell has the NBA Finals MVP award named after him!); however, this Hall of Famer was a 5x All-NBA selection and a 6x NBA All Star. He led the league in scoring three times and once in rebounds, and – of course – he is a champion, having won a title during the 1955-1956 NBA season. The only knock against him is the era during which he played, the ’50s; however, if you doubt his greatness, look no further than the following statistic: Johnston led the league in win shares for five consecutive seasons between 1953 and 1957. Now, what makes this statistic of his impressive is the company in which it places him in NBA history. In the entire history of the NBA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James are the only other players to have led the league in win shares in at least five seasons, and Johnston did this in five consecutive seasons.
Between these three Hall of Famers, there are championship rings galore, with a total of 13. Bill Russell, Julius Erving, and Neil Johnston combined for 436.6 in win shares, 6 NBA MVPs, 29 NBA All Star game appearances, 23 All-NBA selections, and 2 All-Defense selections.
Karl Malone (1985-2004)
“Close, but not quite,” may describe Karl Marlone’s career regarding his lack of championship jewelry; however, his career as one of the best to have worn the number 32 deserves a closer look. One of the all-time power forwards and a 2x Olympic Gold Medalist, “The Mailman” was more than just a victim of Michael Jordan’s ’90s dominance. With a build more akin to a tight end, this 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward ranks second on the all-time scoring list behind Kareem Abdul-Jabber. Moreover, this 2010 Hall of Fame inductee is a 2x MVP, 14x All Star, 14x All-NBA selection, and a 4x All-Defensive team selection.
Kevin McHale (1980-1993)
As a member of the Celtics during the 1980s, Kevin McHale combined with Larry Bird and Robert Parish to be one of the greatest frontcourts the NBA has ever seen. A 3x NBA Champion, McHale spent 13 seasons in Beantown, during which he legendarily played the 1987 NBA Playoffs with a broken foot. In his career, this 6-foot-10, 210-pound all-around stalwart further amassed seven All Star game appearances, one All-NBA team selection, six All-Defensive team selections, and two Sixth Man of the Year awards, winning them in back-to-back seasons.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson (1979-1991, 1996)
The last of this trio of 32s is Mr. Showtime himself, Earvin “Magic” Johnson. As the 6-foot-9, 215-pound floor general of the “Showtime Lakers,” Magic’s truly unique build and skill set revolutionized not only the point guard position, but the game of basketball. Magic and his rivalry with Larry Bird was the foundation by which the NBA stood upon through the 1980s. As the then tallest point guard in NBA history, Magic’s career was nothing short of illustrious. Prior to being the number one overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, the charismatic Johnson was an All-American and led his Michigan State Spartan squad to the NCAA national title in 1979. In route to the 1979 title, he defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State team in one of the most watched NCAA championship games in history. In the league, this Hall of Famer, having jumped ball at center in the series with an injured Kareem, kicked off his career with a NBA Championship and a Finals MVP award as a rookie. In total, he was a 12x All Star, 4x league assist leader, 2x steals champ, 10x All-NBA team selection, 3x Most Valuable Player, 3x NBA Finals MVP, and a 5x NBA Champion. To cap off his incredible career he was an integral part of the original gold medal winning Dream Team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.
All in all, Karl Malone, Kevin McHale, and Magic Johnson combined for 8 NBA Championships, 503.4 win shares, 5 MVPs, 3 NBA Finals MVPs, 33 All Star appearances, 25 All-NBA nods, 10 All-Defensive team selections, and 2 Sixth Man of the Year awards.
Charles Barkley (1984-2000)
Albeit his lack of championship hardware can be summed up to him being yet another victim of Michael Jordan’s dominance, Charles Barkley is one of the greatest players in NBA history. As a 6-foot-6 undersized power forward, the 252-pound “Round Mound of Rebound” was a dominant force, regularly dominating players half a foot taller than him. In fact, Barkley is one of only four players in league history to have amassed at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists. After being selected 5th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1984 NBA Draft, Barkley joined a star-studded, veteran-laden team with players not far removed from the 76ers’s ’83 title run, such as Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks, and Moses Malone; however, unfazed, Barkley came in and averaged 14 PPG and 8.6 RPG as a rookie. Barkley was a gold medal winner in the 1992 Olympics, and, over the course of his NBA career, Barkley was a 11x All Star, 11x All-NBA selection, a MVP, and he once led the league in rebounds during the 1986-87 season.
Hakeem Olajuwon (1984-2002)
During his incredible 18-year career, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon cemented his place as not just one of the best centers in NBA history, but also one of the greatest players in league history. The Nigerian-born, 7-foot, former top overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft is – ’til this day – the only player to have ever won NBA MVP, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA Finals MVP in the same season. His iconic “Dream Shake” would leave would-be defenders dumbfoundedly frozen. He led the Houston Rockets to back-to-back NBA Championships during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. In 1995, he even led the Rockets from the sixth-seed to the title. (We are going to however ignore the fact that Michael Jordan was retired for a year and a half during the Rockets’s title runs.) The Dream led the league in rebounding twice and in blocks three times. The Hall of Famer, Olajuwon, finished his illustrious career as a 12x All Star, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 12x All-NBA team selection, a MVP, and a 2x NBA Finals MVP.
Shaquille O’Neal (1992-2011)
A 2016 Hall of Fame inductee and 1992 number one overall pick, Shaquille O’Neal personified every bit of his “Diesel” moniker. Shaq was undoubtedly the most dominant force to have ever graced the NBA hardwood. Having destroyed numerous backboards during his career, this 7-foot-1, 325-pound mammoth of a human wore the number 34 during the most successful years of his career, as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. It was during his 7-year Laker career that he teamed up with fellow Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant and legendary coach Phil Jackson to complete the first and only 3-peat since the Jordan-era Bulls. He led the league in scoring twice. In his legendary career, Shaq was a champion four times, a NBA Finals MVP three times, an All Star 15 times, an All-NBA team member 14 times, an All-Defense team selection three times, a MVP award winner, and a Rookie of the Year award winner – and yes if you couldn’t tell a Blitz staff favorite
In their careers, these three big men combined for 521.7 win shares, 6 NBA Championships, five NBA Finals MVPs, three league MVPs, 38 All Star appearances, 37 All-NBA selections, and 12 All-Defensive team nods.
Draymond Green (2012-Present)
A second round steal by the Golden State Warriors in the 2012 NBA Draft, the 6-foot-6 heart and soul of the Dubs, Draymond Green, has yet put together a sneaky great, Hall of Fame-calibre career. As the lynchpin of Golden State’s “Death Lineup” and “Hamptons 5” lineups, Draymond and his ability to play the small-ball center position helped lead the Warriors to a record-breaking 73-9 record, during the 2015-16 regular season, and three NBA Championships in five years. He is the quintessential do-it-all player. During his ongoing career, he is a 3x All Star, a 2x All-NBA selection, a 5x All-Defensive team selection, having won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017, and he led the league in steals once.
LeBron James (2003-Present)
Without a doubt, LeBron James is one of the best players to have ever played the game of basketball – potentially the best. This 6-foot-9, 250-pound small forward has been an athletic marvel on the court during his career. His ongoing career is riddled with greatness. He spent nearly an entire decade taking his teams to the NBA Finals. In the ’07 Eastern Conference Finals, he scored his team’s final 25 points to lead them to a double overtime victory against the Detroit Pistons. In 2015, with his running mates, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, injured, Lebron ended game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals with an otherworldly stat line, 37 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 assists, and this overtime win versus the 1-seeded Atlanta Hawks was an off-shooting night. Capped with a career-defining chase down block of Andre Igoudala in the closing seconds of game 7, LeBron brought the Cleveland Cavaliers back, from down 3 games to 1 in the NBA Finals, to defeat the winningest regular season team in NBA history. If his career ended today, he would be a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer and on the Mount Rushmore of basketball. In his quest to chase down the ghost of Michael Jordan, LeBron has been an All Star 16 times, a scoring champ once, an All-NBA team selection 15 times, an All-Defensive team selection 6 times, a Rookie of the Year, and a league MVP four times. On top of all of this, he is also a 3x NBA Champion and a 3x Finals MVP. All hail the king!
Michael Jordan…duh (1984-1993, 1995-1998, 2001-2003)
Known simply as “His Airness,” Michael Jordan is at the top of the list of all-time great players. Coming off an amazing collegiate career at the University of North Carolina, where he sunk the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship game, Michael Jordan hit the NBA running. Best accompanied with Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke” playing in the background, Jordan’s illustrious, transcendent career cannot be summed up in mere words. In a league of dominant big men, no one had ever seen this unique, ungodly combination of fundamental soundness, grace, power, speed, and insatiable, assassin-like competitive desire before in one player – let alone in a wing player. He redefined superstardom. Nike’s basketball division was practically built on his back. Even all-time great players recognized Jordan’s unparalleled greatness. After having just had a young Jordan drop 63 points on him and his Celtics in the 1986 NBA Playoffs, “Larry Legend” himself referred to the second-year player as “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” A succinct resume of his numerous career accomplishments would include the following: 6x NBA Champion, 6x NBA Finals MVP, 14x All Star, 11x All-NBA team selection, 9x All-Defensive team member, 1987-88 Defensive Player of the Year, 5x NBA MVP, 1984-85 Rookie of the Year, 3x Steals Champ, and a record 10x Scoring Champ, of which 7 were consecutive matching Wilt Chamberlain’s mark (Yes! The guy who dropped 100 points in a single game. That guy.) He was a big-time performer and Cavalier killer, hitting game-winning shots against the Cavs in both the ’89 and ’93 playoffs. Between “The Shot,” “The Double Nickel,” “The Flu-Game,” “The Last Shot,” his filthy dunk over Patrick Ewing during the ’91 Playoffs, and his mid-air, switch-handed layup during game 2 of the ’91 Finals, Michael Jordan has had more legendary games and moments than I can count on my fingers. Standing alone, Jordan made the number 23 one of the greatest of all time.
In summation, these three players have combined for 494.5 win shares, 12 NBA Championships, 9 league MVPs, 9 NBA Finals MVPs, 33 All Star selections, 28 All-NBA selections, 20 All-Defensive team selections, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and two Rookie of the Year awards.
Larry Bird (1979-1992)
Larry Bird helped shape the 1980s. Known as “Larry Legend” or “The Hick from French Lick,” Bird is one of the clutchest players and greatest three-point shooters ever. In his 13-year, Hall of Fame career, Larry personified hustle, grit, and toughness as a member of the Boston Celtics. He was an amazing scorer, passer, rebounder, defender, and – above all – clutch performer. He is one of the greatest small forwards of all time. If LeBron James never came around, he would most likely be the best. He was arrogant and cocky. He talked trash even before the jump ball. He was everything you desired in a superstar. Although back issues cut his career short, Bird put together an all-time resume. He was a 3x NBA Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 3x MVP (in consecutive years), 12x All Star, 10x All-NBA team selection, 3x All-Defensive team selection, and the 1979-80 Rookie of the Year. He is obviously one of the greatest players to have ever worn the number 33 jersey.
Scottie Pippen (1987-2004)
As the only other member of both of the Chicago Bulls’s three-peats, Scottie Pippen embodied the position of point forward. He was one of the most versatile and talented players ever. Passing like a point guard, rebounding like a power forward, and scoring like a shooting guard, Pippen was a vital component of the Bulls’s six championships in the ’90s. In legendary fashion, he hounded Magic Johnson during the ’91 Finals, shutting down the remains of Showtime, after His Airness proved unable to effectively guard Johnson after picking up two quick fouls in game 1, a Bulls loss. During the 1994 NBA Playoffs, he even viciously dunked on Patrick Ewing really really hard – and Ewing even wore the number 33 jersey too. He then proceeded to taunt the legendary Spike Lee afterwards. During his Hall of Fame career, he amassed seven All Star appearances, seven All-NBA team nods, ten All-Defensive team selections, and was the 1994-95 Steals Champ. Like Bird, he was also a member of the legendary Dream Team.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969-1989)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an all-time great of all-time greats. Simply stated, when Kareem retired, no one had ever blocked more shots, scored more points than him nor won more MVP awards. Even today, he still sits atop the league’s all-time scoring list. If you are looking for someone to challenge the numerous accolades of Michael Jordan, then look no further than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A 3x NCAA Champion (1967-69) and 3x tournament Most Outstanding Player while at UCLA and then known as Lew Alcinder, Kareem won at every level. During his amazing NBA career, he won six Most Valuable Player awards in ten years and led the league in scoring twice, rebounds once, and blocks four times. He won the 1969-70 Rookie of the Year award. Additionally, Abdul-Jabber was a 6x NBA Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 19x All Star, 15x All-NBA team selection, and a 11x member of the All-Defensive team. While it may not be pretty, no player has since been able to replicate Kareem’s iconic signature “sky-hook” move that was certainly more than effective. He is the greatest player to have ever donned the 33 jersey.
Between this trio of Hall of Famers and all-time great players, they combined for 544.3 win shares, 15 NBA Championships, 9 MVPs, 4 NBA Finals MVPs, 38 All Star appearances, 32 All-NBA selections, 24 All-Defensive team nods, and 2 Rookie of the Year awards.
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