New Orleans Pelicans player uniform number choices reflect variety of preferences

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Michael Jordan, Justin Holiday and Davalyn Cunningham have very little in common on the surface – other than that they’re all current or former basketball players – but the mark they made is evident every time the 2015-16 New Orleans Pelicans play a game. That’s because Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Dante Cunningham, respectively, chose uniform numbers (23, 11 and 44) that pay tribute to the that aforementioned trio.

Whether it’s a nod to an influential hoopster, or perhaps a reference to their early days as a youngster just learning to love the game of basketball, NBA players often cite a range of reasons for selecting the digit(s) on the front and back of their jerseys. Then again, other times there really is no good explanation. That’s also the case for the Pelicans, who have nearly as many differing stories behind their uniform numbers as they do players on a 15-man roster.

THIS IS JUST A TRIBUTE

Davis’ selection of No. 23 combines the best of both worlds, showing respect for a man many describe as the greatest basketball player of all time, while also acknowledging the city where Davis was born and raised. The 22-year-old, two-time All-Star famously experienced a dramatic growth spurt in high school to his current 6-foot-10 height, but prior to that, Davis was a guard. Backcourt players are generally assigned single-digit numbers or those in the 10s, which was also the case for Davis – he often wore No. 3. When he entered high school in Chicago, however, he was able to procure the coveted 23, in a city where Jordan reached deity status as a six-time NBA champion with the Bulls. Including his historically-great championship season at Kentucky, Davis has kept 23 ever since.

“I’ve had it since my freshman year of high school,” said Davis. “I was a guard back then. I always wore 3, but I wanted to wear 23 because of Michael Jordan, being from Chicago.”

Holiday’s No. 11 honors a current Atlanta Hawks guard – his older brother Justin. Prior to grinding his way to a spot in the NBA and signing a free-agent contract with Atlanta this summer, Justin wore No. 22 as a youngster and standout at Oregon State. Jrue took that number and split it in half, coming up with the 11 he’s sported for each of his seven NBA seasons, dating back to playing for Philadelphia.

“My brother’s number his whole life was 22, so 11 is half of that,” Jrue explained. “Before (11) my favorite number was 21, which I wore in college (at UCLA).” Incidentally, Justin actually doesn’t wear 22 anymore, sporting 7 for Atlanta this season.

Meanwhile, Cunningham had previously worn 33 in the NBA, but that was already taken by Ryan Anderson when Cunningham arrived in New Orleans, so he picked a number that references his older sister Davalyn. Now 35, Davalyn played for the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle in 2002, after starring in college at Rutgers (Dante excelled at nearby Villanova).

“I picked (44) because 33 was chosen by Ryan Anderson,” Dante said. “Also 44 was my sister’s college and professional number. I wanted to kind of stick with something that meant something to me.”

Speaking of meaning behind a number, Anderson says people sometimes think that he wears 33 because of his prolific three-point shooting, but the story is actually much deeper than that. A California native who grew up in a spiritual family, Anderson chose 33 partly because of an extremely important figure in his life and background.

“The number 33 has always been my favorite number,” Anderson said. “There is also some symbolism to it. Jesus Christ, when he died on the cross, was 33 years old. People also say that I shoot threes, so it fits that way as well. A lot of people (mistakenly) think it’s because of that.”

Like Davis, center Alexis Ajinca’s number is a nod to his roots, the area where he first learned to play basketball. A native of France, Ajinca frequently tweets references to 42, the number designation for the part of the European nation where he was raised.

“Like in the United States, different regions of France are given a number, similar to an area code,” Ajinca explained. “The number 42 represents where I come from, my city and my people.”

BACK IN THE DAY

For a quartet of Pelicans, their current number dates back to their formative years, when they laid the foundation for a hoops career that would one day land them in the NBA. That proved to be a fortuitous decision in each case, because in a league where the number you want isn’t always available, Tyreke Evans (1), Eric Gordon (10), Quincy Pondexter (20) and Norris Cole (30) have managed to keep the same one for their entire pro careers, despite playing for two different teams apiece.

Evans selected 1 after recruiting services made him the consensus top-ranked high school player in America, a coveted title. He eventually wore 12 at the University of Memphis when 1 was not available, then took 13 with the Sacramento Kings (the Kings had retired No. 1 for Nate Archibald), but returned to 1 after he signed with New Orleans in July 2013.

Gordon’s 10 dates back to his pre-teen years, when he first realized his love for basketball. After wearing 23 in high school and in college for the Indiana Hoosiers, he returned to 10 in the NBA. Gordon has sported 10 for each of his eight pro seasons, split between the L.A. Clippers and New Orleans.

“When I was 10 years old, that was when I really dedicated myself to basketball,” the shooting guard said. “As soon as I made it to the NBA, I knew 10 was the number I wanted to wear.”

Pondexter has achieved the oddity of playing in uniform No. 20 for both the New Orleans Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans, playing his rookie season in the Crescent City, then returning in January 2015 via a trade. In between, he wore 20 for Memphis (he briefly changed to 8 but was traded early in that season by the Grizzlies). Although it seems like it should be a fairly common basketball number, 20 has actually been easy for Pondexter to obtain.

“As a kid, I thought I needed to pick a unique number,” Pondexter said. “Also No. 20 was the only jersey that fit me, because I was so skinny as a kid. It was good luck and I just stuck with it ever since.”

Initially, Cole didn’t actually pick 30 – it came to him as a result of happenstance. Clearly, though, the number has brought favorable results to the point guard, who won two NBA championships with the Miami Heat in it and helped the Pelicans reach the playoffs in 2015 for the first time since ’11.

“(Thirty) was actually just given to me my sophomore year (of high school),” Cole said. “The varsity coach gave it to me when I was able to dress for the varsity. I just kept it. It’s worked for me so far. It’s definitely my number now for sure.”

SIGNIFIYING NOTHING

When forward Luke Babbitt began his NBA career with Portland in 2010-11, he faced a common problem for rookies when they pick out a number. The Trail Blazers have retired a dozen jerseys; combined with their current players, that didn’t leave many options. Babbitt ended up going with No. 11 and switched to No. 8 when he signed with New Orleans, which had already given out 11 to Jrue Holiday. Babbitt says his current number carries no significance.

“Coming in as a rookie, you have slim pickings sometimes,” he said. “There are retired numbers, as well as a lot of numbers taken by a whole roster full of veteran guys. In Portland, I think I picked from three or four different numbers and chose No. 11. There was no real meaning to it.”

Two Pelicans centers share that sentiment about their numbers.

“I don’t have any specific reason for 3,” Omer Asik said. “I just picked it and have kept it in the NBA.”

“The number 5 was one of my favorite numbers growing up,” said Kendrick Perkins, who’s also worn 43 and 3 in the NBA. “There isn’t really anything specific about it.”

BACKUP PLAN IN EFFECT

A word of caution to young basketball players considering getting their uniform number permanently tattooed or making the digits ingrained in some fashion: It’s sometimes impossible to stick with the same one. For three Pelicans who joined or rejoined the roster in 2015-16, their current number is a result of the unavailability of their top choices.

“Well 23 was taken, obviously,” said smiling guard Toney Douglas, referring to Davis’ number, a popular jersey among fans everywhere. “That’s the number I really like. I chose 16 because my birthday is March 16.”

Small forward Alonzo Gee had the same issue, and even his other choice (33) was gone, taken by Anderson. So he went with Option C, uniform No. 15.

“I definitely couldn’t get the two numbers that I do wear, which are 33 and 23,” Gee said, laughing. “I’ve been on teams like that. When I first got to Cleveland they asked me what number I wanted and I said, ‘I can’t take 23 – LeBron (James) just left!’

“But 15 was a number I had during my first call-up (from the D-League) with the Wizards, so I went back to it.”

Signed one day before the regular season opened, point guard Ish Smith faced a common problem among late arrivals. Smith jokingly said he considered resorting to violence to procure the number 5 he really wanted, but eventually cooler heads prevailed.

“They didn’t have 5,” Smith said of his preferred number, already taken by Perkins. “I was generous enough not to beat Perk up, because I didn’t want to take 5 from him. Nah, I’m just kidding. I just picked the closest number to 5, which was 4."