Michael Jordan: By The Jersey Numbers

05/08/2020 at 10:05pm

By Brian Martin

There are few athletes more associated with a number than Michael Jordan and the No. 23. But for exactly 23 games of his NBA career, Jordan wore a number other than his trademark No. 23.

Episodes 7 and 8 of "The Last Dance" center around Jordan's first retirement from the Bulls following the 1992-93 season, his pursuit of playing professional baseball and his eventual return to the Bulls near the end of the 1994-95 regular season.

After Jordan retired following Chicago's first three-peat, the Bulls raised his No. 23 jersey to the rafters and erected a statue in his likeness outside the United Center (it now lives inside the atrium of the arena). At this time, Jordan was playing Double-A baseball with the Birmingham Barons and wearing the No. 45 - his baseball jersey number and his first basketball jersey number from high school.

After 21 months away from the game of basketball, Jordan was ready to leave the diamond and return to the hardwood. On March 18, 1995, Jordan announced his return to basketball with two simple words: "I'm back."

But Jordan did not come back in his No. 23 jersey, instead he kept the No. 45 that he used in Birmingham and brought it to Chicago as he set to embark on a new chapter of his basketball career.

While Jordan had some incredible moments in the No. 45 jersey - including the famous Double Nickel game on March 28, 1995 in New York as he dropped 55 points against the Knicks in only his fifth game back - it didn't take long for Jordan to dust off the No. 23 jersey.

Between the final 17 games of the regular season and the first five games of the 1995 Playoffs, Jordan wore the No. 45 for a total of 22 games. The Bulls went 16-6 in those games, with Jordan averaging 27.5 points, 6.7 rebounds. 5.3 assists and 1.8 steals and shooting 42.4% from the field and 47.1% from three.

JERSEY GP W/L WIN% MIN PPG RPG APG SPG BPG
No. 23 All1228809-4190.65938.730.66.25.32.30.8
No. 23 CHI1086742-3440.68339.131.96.35.42.40.9
No. 23 WAS14267-750.47236.021.25.94.41.50.5
No. 452216-60.72739.727.56.75.31.80.7
No. 1210-10.00047.049.07.02.00.01.0
Non No. 232316-70.69640.028.46.75.11.70.7

But after a loss to the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a change needed to be made. With the Bulls leading by one in the game's final 20 seconds, Jordan had the ball stolen from behind by Nick Anderson, which led to a transition dunk by former Bull Horace Grant to put the Magic up one with six seconds to play and seal the game.

After the game, Anderson told reporters: "No. 45 is not No. 23. I couldn't have done that to No. 23."

And No. 45 was never seen again.

When the Bulls and Magic took the court for Game 2 - the 23rd game of his comeback - Jordan was donning the familiar No. 23 and would score 38 points in Chicago's 104-94 win to even the series. The Magic would go on to win the series in six games in what was the last playoff series that Jordan ever lost.

The Magic are also connected to the only other number that Jordan ever wore in an NBA game. On Valentine's Day 1990, the Bulls were in Orlando to take on the Magic when Jordan's No. 23 jersey came up missing. The Bulls did not have a backup No. 23 jersey, so they searched through the visiting crowd looking for any fan with a No. 23 jersey that could fit Jordan. When that search came up empty, the Bulls were forced to use a nameless No. 12 jersey - a universal backup jersey - for Jordan that night.

Jordan would go on to score 49 points on 21-43 shooting in 47 minutes as the Bulls fell to the Magic 135-129 in overtime. No. 12 is the only jersey in which Jordan does not have a win.

JERSEY FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT%
No. 23 All11.523.249.70.61.832.57.08.483.5
No. 23 Bulls11.923.650.40.61.932.97.58.983.7
No. 23 Wizards8.720.143.10.20.824.13.74.680.5
No. 4510.123.842.41.12.347.16.27.880.1
No. 1221.043.048.80.02.00.07.010.070.0
Non No. 2310.624.642.91.02.345.36.37.979.6

When we examine Jordan's stats in each of his jersey numbers, including separating Jordan's time in No. 23 between his time in Chicago and his time in Washington for his second comeback, there are a few differences that stand out.

Jordan averaged 31.9 points per game and shot 50.4% from the field in his 1,086 games as a Bull in the No. 23. He added 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.4 steals per game as he won 68.3% of his games between the regular season and playoffs combined.

Jordan attempted more 3-pointers (2.3 per game) and made them at a much higher percentage (47.1%) during his 22-game stint in the No. 45 jersey. However, his 2-point efficiency in the No. 45 was a full 10 percentage points lower than his standard 2-point accuracy (51.9% as No. 23 with the Bulls and 51.1% as No. 23 overall, including his time in Washington).

Jordan's time in the No. 45 is such a small sample size, but it does offer a nice snapshot of his return to the game following his first retirement. While his efficiency was a little lower than his standard, as he knocked off some of the rust following a 21-month hiatus from basketball, his overall numbers were close to what he posted for his entire career. Even when he was forced to put on a nameless No. 12 jersey for a single game, he still dropped 49 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

Michael Jordan may be synonymous with the number 23, but he could dominate the game in any number given to him.