NBA

LeBron shouldn't play the numbers game

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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
   
 
Followers of the NBA playoffs have grown accustomed to LeBron James missing the mark (on mid-range jumpers) and taking one too many steps (on forays to the basket). So it should come as no surprise LeBron has once again misfired by taking things a step too far.
James has announced he is willing to give up his No. 23 — and switch to No. 6 — next season in tribute to Michael Jordan. LeBron has also asked that all the other 23s in the league follow suit with the NBA giving 23 the same treatment Major League Baseball has given No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson. (But will fans be able to adjust to C.J. Watson, Jodie Meeks, Devin Brown, Stephen Graham, B.J. Mullins, Lou Williams and Toney Douglas wearing new numbers?) I guess wearing No. 23 in honor of his Airness and climbing the list of all-timers in his own right wasn't enough of a tribute for LeBron. One doubts he cleared this grandstanding move with Jordan. I'm sure even the legendarily egomaniacal M.J. would prefer to see generations of players paying tribute by wearing his number rather than seeing 23 gathering dust in the rafters of new buildings that have little to do with his legacy. Like a four-step gallop to the hoop, this is a move that has no place in the NBA. Let me count the reasons. 1) Michael Jordan was no Jackie Robinson. What Jackie Robinson did on April 15, 1947, dwarfs anything Michael Jordan ever did on a basketball court. If baseball wanted to honor the greatest player of all time, then No. 3 would be retired throughout baseball in honor of Babe Ruth. But everyone understands Robinson's on-field brilliance was secondary to his towering achievement of simply taking the field. Many players have superior career statistics, but only Robinson's Hall of Fame plaque reads: "Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern major leagues in the face of intense adversity." Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. Those who say otherwise embarrass themselves. But merely being the best hoop player that ever lived is not grounds for a league-wide number retirement. If anything, the NBA'S retiring Jordan's number would be a slap in the face to all the players who built the league, particularly those like Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor, who revolutionized the game while enduring intense racism. Perhaps LeBron, being only 24, doesn't understand that part of the reason Jordan was able to leap so high was that he launched himself off the shoulders of giants. 2) No number could further undermine his cause than switching to No. 6. LeBron is willing to switch to No. 6 to honor Julius Erving (who retired when James was 2). One wonders whether James even knows Bill Russell wore No. 6 or has any understanding of Russell's impact on the NBA. LeBron says he, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade couldn't have existed without Jordan. (Bryant, whose father, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, played eight seasons in the NBA, would likely disagree.) But could there have been a Michael Jordan without Russell? During Russell's 13 seasons (1956-69) in the league, the game was transformed much more obviously than during Jordan's career, and Russell was at the center of that transformation. A running, jumping, shot-blocking perpetual motion machine, Russell introduced the end-to-end athleticism that Jordan would later perfect. Jordan inherited the league from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird long after Baylor and Dr. J had taken the game above the rim. Russell followed George Mikan and Max Zaslofsky. Who do you think changed the game more? Throw in the fact that Russell won a record 11 titles in 13 seasons and you could make a much stronger argument for retiring No. 6 than retiring No. 23. 3) I guess this means LeBron has no interest in being the Greatest of All Time.

What's in a number?

ALTTEXT As long as we're retiring No. 23, FOXSports.com NBA editor John Galinsky says, why not retire these numbers, too? No. 6: Bill Russell and Julius Erving revolutionized the game in different ways — Russell with his defense and the Doctor with his athleticism and grace. No. 32: Nine teams have already retired this number, including the Los Angeles Lakers in honor of Magic Johnson, so the other 21 might as well follow suit. No. 33: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was arguably as great as Michael Jordan, though it's hard to compare centers and shooting guards. Larry Bird also made this an iconic number. No. 99: George Mikan was the league's first superstar and, in a way, set the stage for every star after him. It's probably unnecessary to retire it, though, considering only one player has worn it in the past 50 years.
This is not the move of a guy who plans on one day being considered better than Jordan. It feels like a cop-out. When LeBron failed to win a title by his sixth season — it took Jordan seven to win his first — maybe he just wanted to head off future comparisons by surrendering to Jordan. Perhaps abandoning No. 23 is LeBron's way of waving the white flag. Which is just plain sad for a 24-year-old who should have his sights set on surpassing Jordan, not making sycophantic gestures of supplication to M.J. 4) This will only feed speculation about LeBron's destination for 2009-10. The most knowledgeable basketball source I know e-mailed me off the record that he believes LeBron will end up in Chicago next year. If that's true, doesn't this P.R. move make total sense for Team LeBron? If he were headed to New York, where Toney Douglas wears No. 23, James could just keep his jersey number. But if he were headed to Chicago, he'd have to make a change. So why not ingratiate yourself to the city and to Mr. Bull in advance of your arrival? Poor Cavs fans. They're trying desperately not to think about the fact this is probably James' last season in Cleveland. They don't need LeBron obliquely reminding them he'll be wearing a different uniform next year. 5) It's not going to happen. Thankfully, David Stern understands the NBA was not founded the night Michael Jordan won his first championship. He knows the history of the league and what the older generations went through to pave the way for the tens of millions that superstars like Jordan got paid. He's not going to let No. 23 be retired across the NBA. So just like against the Spurs in the '07 Finals, and against the Celtics in the '08 conference semis, and against the Magic in last year's conference finals, LeBron will come up short. Which is as it should be. Because this idea is all 'Bron and no brains.

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