When you watch an NBA game, the last thing you are probably thinking is, “what’s the story behind that guy’s jersey?”
A jersey is part of the NBA uniform. Everyone wears one, and every NBA player has a number that helps teammates, opponents, referees, and fans identify them. But did you know how intricate jersey number rules can be? And do you realize just how much thought is put into a player selecting their jersey number?
This article will break down the NBA jersey rules and retell some of the most interesting stories behind famous players and their numbers.
NBA Jersey Rules
I will admit it: I was one of those fans who never thought about jersey rules. To me, the game and the players who excelled at it was the only thing that mattered. I also played basketball in high school and college. As someone who chose the number 33 after Larry “Legend” (and because shooting was my specialty), I thought I knew all there was to a number.
I was wrong.
First, we’ll look at the jersey rules from the NBA’s perspective. Then, we’ll talk about what goes into the process from the player’s side.
The league’s rules behind jersey number selection are pretty straightforward: players can wear any number combination between 00 and 99—almost. The one number not allowed is 69 for . . . obvious reasons. The NBA can thank rebounding great and Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman for this little wrinkle.
The Dennis Rodman Story
Always the rabble-rousing contrarian (to put it nicely), Rodman decided on pushing the envelope when he joined the Dallas Mavericks late in his career. He chose #69 as his jersey number. The team almost went ahead with it, even printing some jerseys with the number.
It wasn’t until Mavs owner Mark Cuban and NBA commissioner David Stern caught wind that the number switch was mandated. Now, on the scale of Rodman antics during his illustrious career, this is one of the mildest transgressions. It still caused a stir in the league, though. Rodman backed down without much of a fight and chose jersey number 70 (69+1) instead.
When A Number Can’t Be Used
There are a few instances when you cannot choose a number as a player. The first is when the number is retired by the team for which you play. For example, if you play for the Chicago Bulls, you will never wear Michael Jordan’s famous number 23.
There are exceptions to this rule. If a player asks the retired number owner’s permission, only the retiree can allow it. Good luck getting MJ to do that, Bulls players.
The second instance in which a number can’t be used is if another current player already owns it. Let me dream for a minute. Let’s pretend that I make the Golden State Warriors roster, and my desired jersey number was 30. I am going to be unable to get that number because Steph Curry wears it. Granted, I could ask him to switch numbers with me, but I highly doubt that would happen.
In the ’90s and ’00s, if someone had a number you wanted, you could simply buy it from them. The jersey market got a bit outrageous—although more so in the NFL than the NBA—and players buying a number has slowed down. This trend has slowed: we live in an age where pro athletes value their money and have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. But it just goes to show you how important a jersey number can be.
How Jersey Numbers Are Chosen
There are several reasons that players choose their number. Some choose dates like birthdays of relatives. Some choose numbers based on their childhood idols. And some are given a number in youth basketball that stays with them for years.
Athletes tend to be superstitious. They often have routines before, during, and after a game that they stick to religiously. They might have special handshakes with each of their teammates. They perform rituals on the foul line before each shot they take. They wear certain items under their uniforms—sweatbands, sneakers, socks. The jersey number is a part of this, and many will go to great lengths to keep them.
Some may wonder why more players don’t use jersey numbers that are higher than 5. Current star Luka Doncic is one of the only notable players with a number north of 5 on his jersey, choosing to don the number 77. Why?
For one, many players keep their college numbers when entering the league. The NCAA has stricter rules regarding the numbers you can wear, not allowing their players any number past #55. The reason behind this? Referees.
When communicating fouls and other violations to the scorer’s table, refs use two hands to note the player number. For instance, if #21 commits a foul, the ref will hold up two fingers on one hand and one finger on the other, indicating the player number. Many would argue that the communication between the ref and the scorer’s table can change, and the silly number limitations can be updated.
As of now, however, that is the rule.
As you can see, much thought and deliberation go into jersey numbers. The NBA does a good job of allowing players to choose almost any number they want, barring certain exemptions—a player already wearing it, a team’s retired numbers, the number 69.
So, next time you are watching the game, take a look at a player’s jersey number and wonder why the heck it is they chose it. Was it superstition? Does that number have a special meaning to them? Or maybe that player next to them on the bench already had their favorite number locked up. Either way, a lot goes into a number.
What number did you wear playing sports and why is it special? Let us know in the comments section below!