Did You Know That… Choosing a uniform number isn’t always as simple as it seems?
It may partly be the result of many people in society becoming wiser about their finances, but the once-proud tradition of athletes paying a teammate to obtain a uniform number seems to be vanishing. The practice used to be so common in pro sports that there was an even an infamous 2005 NFL lawsuit between ex-Washington teammates Ifeanyi Ohalete and Clinton Portis, over $40,000 Ohalete claimed Portis had not fully paid to acquire Redskins jersey No. 26 (it’s a long story, if you wish to Google it).
In the NBA, a relatively recent rule requires players to notify the league of a number change more than a year in advance, perhaps another reason the “digits for cash” market has dried up considerably. In the case of the New Orleans Pelicans, last summer there were multiple instances where a new player preferred a number that was already taken, yet by all indications, no bills were exchanged.
For instance, Pelicans center Derrick Favors wore No. 15 for nearly a decade in Utah, but when he arrived in New Orleans in July 2019, second-year guard Frank Jackson – who coincidentally grew up a Jazz fan in Utah – had the rights to it. International free agent signee Nicolo Melli had sported No. 4 for many years in Europe, but after signing with the Pelicans, discovered that guard JJ Redick had beaten him to it.
Dating back to the previous decade, that’s also how the NBA careers of current Pelicans including Jrue Holiday, Darius Miller and Jahlil Okafor began, with Holiday and Miller being forced to select a different number because a teammate owned their preference. In Okafor’s case, he went in a different direction because Philadelphia’s No. 15 – Okafor’s number while winning a national title at Duke – was retired for 76ers legend Hal Greer.
“Originally coming out of high school I wore 21 (and in college at UCLA),” Holiday explained. “But going into Philadelphia as a rookie, I asked one of the veteran players if I could have 21 and he was like, ‘Yeah – I’ll sell it to you.’ I said, ‘No, thank you. I will change my number.’ So that’s how I got 11.”
A quick search indicates that the unnamed 76ers teammate was Thaddeus Young, who’s still grasping tightly to No. 21, currently wearing it for the Chicago Bulls, 11 years and four teams later for him.
Miller also preferred 21 when he was drafted by New Orleans in ’12, but couldn’t have it because then-Hornets point guard Greivis Vasquez had dibs, so Miller grabbed No. 2. Upon Miller’s return to the Crescent City five years later, however, he was able to reclaim 21.
For the bulk of the New Orleans roster, though, the path to a uniform number was smoother, or carries some distinct or special meaning. Here’s a roundup of how an assortment of the team’s players chose the digit(s) displayed on their red, white, blue or Mardi Gras-inspired jerseys:
Backup plan activated
With his familiar No. 15 unavailable, Favors acknowledged a family member’s important date with his selection of 22. “I decided to go with 22, because my son’s birthday is July 22,” he said.
Having to move away from No. 4, Melli selected 20, but played the reasons behind that decision close to the vest: “Twenty was a number I liked as a kid. It has a special meaning for me, a private meaning for me.”
Pelicans rookie Zylan Cheatham has some unique and historical reasoning behind why he wears No. 45. When the forward transferred from San Diego State to Arizona State, he picked No. 45 because in the mid-1990s when Michael Jordan returned to the NBA, he chose 45 (before eventually returning to his iconic 23). “I saw it as like my comeback year, my revival,” Cheatham remembered. “When Michael Jordan retired, he was 23 but came back as 45. It kind of made sense to me.”
Meanwhile, fellow first-year pro Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s somewhat unusual choice of No. 0 is also partly about starting anew. In college, Alexander-Walker wore No. 4 to honor his uncle, but as he entered the NBA, Alexander-Walker said he “wanted to create an identity for myself” as the guard began to establish himself in the pros.
Okafor actually began this season wearing No. 8, but in tribute to Kobe Bryant, changed to No. 9 following the Hall of Famer’s tragic death in late January.
In B.I.’s case, 14 is not > 13
Unlike his game-winning jump shot vs. Utah on Jan. 16, when Brandon Ingram realized he actually could don his preferred No. 13 in New Orleans, it was too late. If you pay close attention, you may have noticed that Ingram’s Twitter account is actually @B_Ingram13, with that being his preferred uniform number, but he couldn’t wear it at Duke (Ingram: “someone else had it already”) or with the Lakers (retired for Wilt Chamberlain).
Ingram ended up with the No. 14 Pelicans jersey, the same number he wore at Duke and with Los Angeles, essentially for the same reason in all three places.
“It was the closest thing to 13,” Ingram said of 14. “(Thirteen) was originally my number in high school (because) it was my brother’s number.”
The shot is up, it’s good!
It’s not all bad news for New Orleans players and their collective pursuit of a cherished uniform number. For at least eight of the team’s players, the process was quick, easy and successful.
When they arrived in the Crescent City via a trade with the Lakers, Lonzo Ball (2) and Josh Hart (3) were able to procure the same numbers they wore with their previous NBA team.
Ball: “I’ve been No. 2 my whole life. It started when I was a kid in school. My last name is Ball, so I was always second in line (alphabetically). So that’s how I came up with 2.”
Hart on 3: “It’s for the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Also, I’m the third child of my family and my favorite player was Dwyane Wade. So I guess that’s also three reasons.”
Duke fans may be pleased to know that although Ingram and Okafor were forced to go in different directions from what they sported in Durham, N.C., the Pelicans’ three other former Blue Devils are all proudly repeating their college digits.
Veteran guard Redick began wearing No. 4 as a high school freshman and continued doing so through his decorated four-year career with Duke. Zion Williamson and Frank Jackson both played one season for the ACC school and still sport No. 1 and No. 15, respectively.
Jaxson Hayes (No. 10) and Kenrich Williams (No. 34) both recently played their college basketball in Texas and were also able to immediately don their NCAA numbers. Williams actually has a unique reason for 34, having idolized Boston Celtics great Paul Pierce.
“I’ve had 34 since junior college,” Williams said. “My favorite player is Paul Pierce, so it just kind of stuck with me.”
This article has featured a dizzying series of numbers, so there’s perhaps no better way to wrap it up than closing with the mathematical formula of how E’Twaun Moore arrived at No. 55, which is sometimes the highest number worn on an NBA roster. Sure, the quickest way to explain Moore’s 55 is that he was the 55th pick in the ’11 draft – and he uses that as motivation, believing he should’ve been chosen earlier (a nine-year NBA career is objective proof of that). But as Moore explains, there’s another layer when you dig deeper.
“My high school jersey was 22 and my college number was 33,” a smiling Moore said. “So 22 plus 33 equals 55.”
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