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What's in a Number?

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Cleveland--LeBron James has been in the NBA for seven years already. The amazement of how time has flown is only trumped by the admiration for his accomplishments in those years. LeBron’s body of work, all with the Cavaliers, is enough to warrant his number being raised to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena someday. This is true if he signs with another team this summer, and doubly true if he stays.
LeBron has been a 6-time All-Star, the NBA Scoring Champion, league MVP, carried his team to an NBA Finals appearance, and is the youngest basketball player to score 15,000 career points. He could call it quits right now and that number 23 would be a lock for retirement as well.

Things definitely get interesting this offseason, even if he stays in Cleveland. Should LeBron sign a long-term deal with the Cavs--which I honestly believe he will--the staff of the Q will need to clear the way for two new banners. One will be sandwiched between Larry Nance (22) and Mark Price (25); the other will require all the numbers to shift to the right one position. Both banners, causing the shake-up, will belong to LeBron James.

It is well known that LeBron is changing his number to 6 for this upcoming season. His reason is to honor Michael Jordan league-wide, in hopes that the NBA will put a recall on anyone currently wearing 23. If successful, Jordan would be in elite company--only Jackie Robinson (42) and Wayne Gretzky (99) have their numbers in the rafters of every team’s venue. In their cases, however, players wearing 42 and 99 before the widespread retirement were allowed to finish their careers undisturbed. LeBron’s NBA petition could easily be “grandfathered” in similarly; allowing LeBron to maintain number 23. Either way, it is what it is. He will don number 6 for whatever team he plays for in 2010-11.

If he stays with the Cavs, the Kobe vs. LeBron analogies will kick up a new topic. It seems the two cannot escape each other, yet they barely cross paths physically. All in all, their puppets have a much bigger rivalry than Kobe and LeBron have on the court. Nevertheless, the NBA is exploiting them as Bird and Magic to sell itself. Contrary to popular belief, the two superstars did not meet up in the NBA Finals last year and they do not have unkind words to say about the other.

The only polarizing thing surrounding them is a West Coast/East-ish Coast fan debate over who is the greatest player going right now. It seems that the whole nation is now split into either Pro-Kobe or Pro-LeBron camps. It is well beyond team affiliation or sports in general; currently as mainstream of a debate as “soda” or “pop.”

Regardless of intention, LeBron will undoubtedly catch some flak from doing what Kobe Bryant did first. It is the most unfair criticism that LeBron receives from the Pro-Kobe contingent; LeBron cannot change the fact that Kobe has been in the league twice as many years. Even so, Kobe did switch numbers mid-career while staying with the same team. Kobe wanted 24 when he entered the league, but it was taken. He finally made the switch to begin the 2006-07 campaign. LeBron had the option to take 6 from the very beginning. His decision to now move from the 20s to the single digits, the complete reciprocal move that Bryant just made, is coincidental but highly ironic. They seem to be unintentional oil and water. It as if LeBron is saying where you were is where I am headed. Cavs fans hope that means multiple World Championships are on the horizon.

Kobe Bryant started this unprecedented debate four years ago and now LeBron will potentially be adding to the confusion. No one in the history of any major U.S. sports league has ever had two numbers retired by the same organization. And why should they? It is extremely rare and bizarre what Bryant and James have done. Changing numbers is typically associated with changing teams, with the desired number not available. And those that do change numbers inside the franchise usually do not spend equal time and accomplish equal greatness in both. Cases and points: Michael Jordan’s time spent with number 45 was short-lived and his game was rusty from first retirement. Tracy McGrady, fueled by a charitable cause, shifted his number from 1 to 3 in the latter years in Houston. Injuries prevented him from being the great player he was early with the Rockets, and was recently shipped to New York.

If Kobe plays until he is 38, he will have spent eleven seasons in both jerseys. Barring any drastic fall-off in performance or movement to another team, he will justify having both 8 and 24 retired by the Lakers. It did not take him his whole career to solidify his place in Lakers history, thus you could even break his career in two and judge their credentials separately. Did Kobe do enough to earn number retirement in 8? Yes. Did Kobe do enough to earn number retirement in 24? Most likely, yes. In other words, he will be remembered as having the equivalent of two independently successful stints in the NBA. Should he stay, LeBron will have the similar luxury of having his career remembered twice-over.

This is not the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame; neither Kobe nor LeBron should have to choose one to represent them for all-time.
LeBron will be in strange company among those who have number 6 retired. Currently, it hangs from the rafters in (ironically) six buildings in the league. The great: Julius Erving (Philadelphia), Bill Russell (Boston). The good: Walter Davis (Phoenix) and Avery Johnson (San Antonio). The downright confusing: The “Sixth Man” in Orlando and Sacramento--two of the more storied franchises in NBA history. I understand the concept of the sixth man being honored, but if places like Boston or even Utah (who has some of the rowdiest fans) are not doing it, chances are Sacramento should follow suit.

As for the number LeBron is leaving behind, and the plans for a Michael Jordan tribute: the Miami Heat are the only team in the NBA that retired 23 in honor of Jordan, without him ever playing for them. It was the first step in the grassroots movement.

Now that Jordan owns the Bobcats, his first housecleaning step will probably be renaming the team. Second on the list might be an egotistic tribute to himself, similar to the Heat. Then the league would have Jordan in the rafters in three locations. Only 27 more for LeBron’s wish to be realized.

It is early to contemplate such matters but LeBron has proven himself worthy for such speculation. The probability of him not producing world-class talent in number 6 is remote. He would have to catch Greg Oden syndrome.

If he sticks it out in Cleveland and gets better with age, he will put the Cavaliers front office in the precocious spot of deciding what to do. There is no set policy; this could be the one thing David Stern does not have a say in. It is a wonderful tradition and a great feeling of satisfaction for the players. It says no one else could be the next iteration of you, so we will not even let someone try.

There are many ways to getting this recognition. Retired numbers traditionally reward outstanding accomplishments that help the franchise win. Head coaches, owners, team founders, general managers, and broadcasters are generally seen high above court-level. There are rare instances where a tragedy has led management into memorializing a fallen player.

There is no real benchmark or strict statistical qualifications. Every organization must do what they see fit. There are always going to be questionable calls and unique ways of representing off-the-court icons. Although they would like to have a say, it is not for fans of the opposition to judge. In some ways, that is what makes it great. In many cases, the ceremonies are showcases for those who had an emotional connection to the fan base.

If he strings together ten more seasons in Cleveland, I could see someone like Anderson Varejao fitting this description. His hustle plays do not make it directly into the score sheet, but the organization may give him the ultimate reward in the rafters. Better tell the Quicken Loans Arena crew; they may need a whole slew of vacant spots for this current group of Cavs.

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