LeBron James will wear no. 23 again, Michael Jordan’s number: why is this a big deal?—The Monday Morning Realist

Every Monday morning, Section 215’s Akiem Bailum gives an in-depth and unfiltered look at all of the latest sports news in The Monday Morning Realist. You can follow Akiem on Twitter @AkiemBailum.

Now that LeBron James has made his triumphant return back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he had another decision to make.

23 or 6? 23 or 6? 6 or 23?

LeBron has of course worn two numbers throughout the course of his NBA career—number 23 during his first days with the Cavs as well as number 6 in his four years with the Miami Heat. He announced his decision via his Twitter and Instagram account that along with his return to the Cavaliers was also coming with a return to his former #23.

In some “quarters” (if you will) of the King’s court, this is seen as somewhat of a surprise. Remember that a few years ago, he was the same guy who once said that no NBA player should wear the #23 out of respect to Michael Jordan. The reason why James switched to the #6 in the first place had, in part, to do with the fact that #6 was the number he wore as a member of the United States’ national team.

Also, the #23 was already retired anyway when he went to Miami—that’s Tim Hardaway’s number in South Florida. So, he had no choice but to choose a new number and it was ironic that he chose his Olympic number since he (along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) supposedly first contemplated the idea of a “Big Three” in Miami while in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics.

He was essentially advocating for the retirement throughout the league of the #23 because of Michael Jordan. But, when we begin talking about the significance of one player on an entire league so much to the point that their number gets retired leaguewide, all eyes, of course, have to point to Jackie Robinson.

In Major League Baseball, no player wears Jackie Robinson’s #42 anymore. The last MLB player to wear number 42 just retired last year when Mariano Rivera hung up his uniform for the last time after spending his entire career in New York Yankees pinstripes. The #42 is a number that deserves to be retired because of Robinson’s significance, not only in sports history, but American history as well.

Who is to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. is able to lead a civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s without Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier? Who is to say that an African American in Barack Obama is able to rise to the ranks of becoming president of the United States without #42 making baseball, sports, and American history?

Retiring the number #42 throughout baseball is one that made sense. Retiring the #23 throughout basketball is somewhat different. Of course, this generation of NBA fans and players may feel the same way LeBron did back when he made those comments given that many of us now in our 20s and 30s practically grew up watching Michael Jordan at the helm for the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty of the 1990s.

Should the #23 be retired? Probably not. I’m also confident that, Realists, His Airness perhaps feels the same way. Jordan is definitely a transcendent, international cultural icon. It has been almost two decades since he retired from the NBA and his name and brand still means as much today as it did in the 1990s. But let’s not put him in the same category as Jackie Robinson as he was an agent of change in not only baseball, but American society.

That’s the macro. Now, on to the micro.

Of course, any time LeBron does something that has any type of overtone to MJ, the sporting press goes immediately insane because of its fetish for rekindling the Jordan vs. LeBron debate (a pointless debate to have in the first place since Jordan is Jordan and LeBron is LeBron). Are jersey sales in Cleveland partially influencing James’ decision? Of course they are.

But, LeBron James is the face of the league and will be for the next several years. His jersey was going to sell like hotcakes (especially in Northeast Ohio) whether he was wearing the number 23, 6, 26, 62, 63, 36, 32, 236, 632, 326, 263, or 362.

How is it that his decision to wear the number 23 be seen as a slight at Jordan? If anything, it’s putting Jordan in a more sensible perspective. Yes, he is arguably the best basketball player of all time, but to retire his number throughout the NBA is ridiculous in itself.

People have their Jordans tied on their shoes a little bit too tight. It must be the shoes after all.

If #23 is retired in the NBA, then we’ll have to retire the #3 in baseball out of respect to Babe Ruth. We’d also have to consider that no Nascar driver will ever drive the #3 car again in racing out of respect to the late, great Dale Earnhardt, Sr.—something that Austin Dillon is currently doing.

The deciding factor as to why this shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign of disrespect to Jordan is the forum that James used to make his decision. LeBron was most likely undecided between the 23 and the 6 (and Nike probably wishes he could wear both—even more jersey sales) and asked the fans which number should he wear now that he was back with the Cavaliers.

Most Cavs fans probably wanted a return to the days of his first years with Cleveland and probably wanted him to revert to the #23.

Of course they were!

So, if this decision was really made by Cavaliers fans for LeBron, then how come no criticism is being placed on them for 86’ing the 6 out of disrespect for Jordan. Has anyone even considered that Cavs fans simply wanted 23 because that’s the number they associate with LeBron in Cleveland while 6 is his Miami and Olympic number?

If he announced on the day that it was revealed that he was returning back to Cleveland that he was going back to the #23, that would have been a separate thing in itself that may have trumped the return in itself (especially in Chicago). But, he essentially crowd-sourced his decision (with a little help from his people at Nike, of course).

Cleveland had a nostalgic feel and LeBron James gave them what they wanted—a full return to that nostalgia. His play on the basketball court this year is likely to give Cavs fans even more cases of déjà vu. So why are we trying to attach Jordan (whose number, again, shouldn’t be hung up in the rafters of every NBA arena) to this decision once again?

Sounds like those in the press that are in arms about the 23 have IQs of about 6—and need to remember the 42.

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Tags: Lebron James Michael Jordan NBA

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