Jersey numbers are one of those things in sports no one ever thinks about, much like why Gatorade is the only drink any athlete is allowed to have or whether your hatred of a certain team or player is really warranted. What point do they serve exactly, especially when the player’s name is already on the back of their jerseys? Maybe it’s useful for college and high school coaches who insist on stripping players of their humanity by removing their name from their jersey, but in professional sports they’re about as useful as the “estimated field goal range” line ESPN displays in football.
At least the numbers fill up what would otherwise be ad space, so that’s something.
Despite their pointlessness, the athletes themselves always get attached the numbers. We’ve all heard stories before about how a football player will take a number to honor a fallen teammate or a baseball player will take the number of his childhood hero.
And what’s up with the practice of retiring jersey numbers of really good players? How much did the number 33 contribute to Larry Bird’s success with the Celtics? Would any player ever wearing the number 42 in baseball totally diminish what Jackie Robinson did for the sport and culture? You’d think these leagues and teams would run out of numbers eventually, and sooner or later someone’s going to get stuck with letters. I’d hate to be the guy who gets a big fat ‘D’ stuck on their chest.
If nothing else, jersey numbers can have some interesting stories behind them. What an athlete is willing to do to get a certain number or their reasons for choosing one reveals a lot about their character. So let’s take a look at the Top 15 Interesting Backstories of Jersey Numbers.
15 Rogerio Ceni - #618
This one’s more weird than anything else. Rarely, if ever, do you see an athlete in any sport stroll out on the field with a number other than 0-99. Jersey printers just don’t like three digit numbers or something. Usually, Ceni wore the equally strange number 01, but when in a match against Atlético Mineiro in 2005, he was making his 618th start for São Paulo FC at goalkeeper, a team record.
The club gave him the number for the game to commemorate the event, which ended in a 0-0 tie. After the match, Ceni went back to #01, but was later given the number 700 in his, you guessed it, 700th match.
As far as anyone knows, 618 and 700 are the two highest numbers to ever be on a jersey in history. Though of course it’s not exactly a stat anyone really keeps track of; it’s certainly not as valuable as the pancake block in football.
14 Gilbert Arenas - #0
Lots of athletes have worn the number 0 before, but Gilbert “Agent Zero” Arenas is different because we can make fun of his gun arrest and there’s an interesting story behind his choice.
Arenas wore #25 in high school, but when he got to the University of Arizona, the number was retired (formerly worn by Steve Kerr in ’88). He certainly wasn’t good enough at the time to force the number out of retirement and people had no problem telling him that, which is where his new number came from.
“Zero is the number of minutes people predicted I would play my freshman year at Arizona,” he told NBA.com. “I love proving people wrong.” That year he ended up playing more than 32 minutes a game for the Wildcats and went on to become an All-Star in the NBA.
13 Jim Otto - #00
Wearing #0 is one thing, but double zero is something that’s only ever happened once. It was back in the ‘60s in the AFL, before the merger with the NFL, when the league allowed the future Hall of Famer to wear the odd number combo.
Where did the number come from? According to Otto, it comes from his name. “Aught” is an old-fashioned way of saying “oh,” as Jim tells it anyway, so “aught-oh” is translated to OO, or 00 which he adopted as his jersey number. I’m sure it sounded better in his head at least. Perhaps if he weren’t an offensive lineman, he could have instead said that 00 represented people’s wide eyes while they watched him playing.
After the merger in 1964, Otto got to keep the number presumably due to sheer respect because the NFL rules stipulate that 00 is not a valid jersey number and he kept it until his retirement in 1974.
12 Derrick Rose - #1
Lots of guys wear #1 either due to ego or because there just isn’t any other number available. Some wear it due to an absurd combination of ego and superstition.
Derrick Rose however wore #1 during his days playing basketball as a kid. He switched to #25 in high school and #23 at Memphis but went back to 1 in the NBA. This wasn’t to show off the fact he was the #1 overall pick in 2008, but rather because he thinks he plays better with the number.
"When I played for my club, I was more aggressive – I was more dominant. But when I played for my high school, I was more passive, getting my teammates involved. When I made it to the league, I kind of wanted that alter ego to be who I wanted to be throughout the whole league."
Ego or superstition, pick your poison.
11 Kevin Garnett - #2
Kevin Garnett has played for three teams over his illustrious NBA career and he hasn’t been lucky enough to keep the same number each time. With his first team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, he wore 21, then No. 5 with the Celtics where he won a championship, then #2 with the Brooklyn Nets.
It’s interesting he chose 2 during the final years of his career because he’s actually paying homage to a fallen teammate.
#2 was worn by Malik Sealy, an old teammate and friend with the Timberwolves. In 2000, Sealy was leaving Garnett’s 24th birthday party when his car was struck by an SUV traveling on the wrong side of the road. Sealy was killed in the crash and Garnett never forgot his friend.
"It was only right to [honor] someone that I respected so much and have a lot of respect for who he is as a person more than anything,” he told ESPN.
10 The #10 in Soccer
If you’re a fan of soccer, you might notice that many of the world’s biggest stars wear the number 10. Messi, Totti, Rooney, Donovan, and Pele all had the honor to don the number. Why do all the greats throughout modern time and history seem to wear the same number?
Part of it’s history. Both Pele and Maradona wore the number and it makes sense that future stars would want to have the same number as tribute to their idles. But part of it is also because of how soccer used to assign numbers.
Numbers used to be assigned based on field position, where each player’s position would general be placed on the pitch. This is also why most soccer players wear numbers between 1-15. The 4-4-2 position became popular, with two players being the main attackers, or the wingers as their official title. Naturally, these two positions, which have traditionally been given #9 and #10, are also the most prolific scorers on the team and thus the most recognized.
Today the number system is mostly gone, but #10 is still an honored jersey number, often given to the most respected, honored player on the team.
9 Paul George - #13
Paul George entered the league in 2010 wearing the number #24 as a tribute to Kobe Bryant, smartly going with it over #8. However, in 2014, George changed his number to #13 at the behest of Bill Simmons and Jimmy Kimmel of all people. The reason being: to give him the nickname “PG-13” to make him more of a household name.
It’s a cute nickname, sure, but this reeks of a guy giving himself his own nickname. Yes, it was originally suggested by someone else, but George changed his jersey number to fit the name. Perhaps he should have told them to come up with something else, but in a league that’s driven not by how good a player you are but by your name recognition, we shouldn’t expect anything less.
Interestingly the change came a few weeks after George’s injury playing for Team USA that would force him to miss most of the ’14-’15 season.
8 Kevin Durant - #35
Much like Kevin Garnett, KD uses his jersey number to honor a fallen friend. His first basketball coach, Charles Craig, was shot and killed in 2005. “Big Chucky,” as his players called him, was like a father to an eight year old Durant. Over the years, Craig would take Durant to the movies, give him money whenever he needed it, and help take care of his mom.
Craig was only 35 years old when he was killed, thus Kevin took the number as a constant reminder of not only the tragic death of his coach and friend, but also the fragility of life. Death can come at any time and the chances of it happen only get higher the more famous you become.
7 Thomas Oar - #121
Thomas Oar apparently isn’t a fan of the #10 in soccer so he decided to be different, donning the number 121 in an Asian Cup qualifying match for Australia. Although why he chose that number specifically remains undocumented. Our best guess is that he just wanted to stand out from the crowd, he was only 18 at the time.
#121 seems to be the highest number and the only three digit number ever worn in an international soccer match (Ceni’s 618 and 700 were only worn in league games in Brazil). FIFA bans the use of triple digit numbers in major tournaments and Oar went back to 11 after one match.
That didn’t stop the soccer world from blowing up though. Apparently wearing the number was a more heinous crime than Deflategate.
Australia did win the game against Indonesia 1-0, in case you were wondering.
6 Clint Dempsey - #2
Unlike many American sports, it’s not unusual to see soccer players migrating from country to country seemingly at random, even stars like Clint Dempsey. Dempsey went to play for the Tottenham Hotspur (yes that’s their name) in 2012 and was forced to change numbers. He decided to go with #2 because of his rap name “Deuce.” He also had the number in college where he started his career as a rapper.
For Dempsey, rapping isn’t just a hobby, it’s his second profession. In 2006, his song “Don’t Tread” was featured in a Nike commercial and he’s released several songs since then.
Presumably he changed his rapper name to “Veintitres” or “Ocho” later in his rap career to coincide with some of his other numbers. Speaking of Ocho…
5 Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson - #85
Chad Johnson famously changed his name to Ochocinco in 2008 to reflect his jersey number and striking personality, but there’s a bit more to the story than that.
Johnson first used the name in 2006. He came out of the tunnel before the game wearing a label that said Ocho Cinco because it was Hispanic Heritage Month. It was only just before the game that quarterback Carson Palmer ripped the label off, but Johnson was fined $5k anyway, because reasons.
Johnson liked the name, so he officially changed his surname in 2008 to Ochocinco so the NFL couldn’t force him to wear Johnson on the back. The change lasted until 2012 when he signed with the Dolphins because he was washed up and no one was willing to take his crap anymore. He was cut after the preseason none-the-less.
The biggest joke is that “Ochocinco” doesn’t mean 85, it means eight five. 85 in Spanish is “ochenta y cinco,” but maybe that’s too much for our American brains to handle.
4 Jeff Feagles - #10 and #17
This is perhaps the only list ever where a punter can rank higher than Chad Johnson, Clint Dempsey, Kevin Garnett, or anyone else on this list.
Feagles, formerly a punter for the New York Giants, wore the number 10 when Eli Manning joined the team in 2004. Manning wanted the number from Feagles, but the punter wasn’t willing to part with it for free. The two struck a deal in which Manning got the number and Feagles got a week vacation paid for by Manning’s lucrative new contract.
But the story doesn’t end there. Feagles switched to #17, the number Plaxico Burress wanted when he joined the Giants in 2005, because it was March 17th he signed with the team. Once again an agreement was struck, Burress would get #17 and Feagles would have his home remodeled on Burress’s dime.
Still, the story doesn’t end there. In 2010, Feagles came out and said that Burress never paid him. Feagles talked to both Burress and his agent, the infamous Drew Rosenhaus, and neither of them would honor the agreement. Burress was unable to pay at the time because he was at that point serving a two year jail sentence due to a gun felony.
Never change NFL, never change.
3 Wayne Gretzky - #99
Wayne Gretzky, the G.O.A.T. of hockey, played for a long time. He first started playing professionally at the age of 15, for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League. There, he wanted to wear #9 in honor of his favorite player, Gordie Howe. However, the number was already being worn by someone who’s name has been lost in time and instead Gretzky went with double nueve’s in double honor, or something.
The number stuck, and throughout his lengthy career, he wore 99. In the process, he became the greatest player in hockey himself, surpassing Howe.
99 has been retired league-wide in the entire NHL and remains the only league-wide number retired. The joke’s been made that Gretzky is 11 times better than Howe, but I’m going to make it again. You know, in double honor of the original joke.
2 Michael Jordan - #12
For all the NBA players tripping over themselves to wear the same 23 that Jordan wore, there aren’t too many wearing 12 or 45 to honor him, are there? Most associate Jordan with 23, but he also wore two other numbers in his career.
Most know about #45, which Jordan wore during his time with the Wizards. He said it was his favorite number when he was in high school. Not very interesting.
However, the story behind #12 is interesting, mostly because we don’t entirely know why it happened. For one game in 1990 against the Orlando Magic, Jordan wore the number 12. Neither Jordan nor the Bulls said why this happened, but it’s widely believed that somehow Jordan’s 23 jersey was stolen and all the Bulls had left was a spare #12 without a name on the back.
Sports Illustrated reports that the jersey was stolen sometime before mid-day shoot-arounds and tip-off, and that the jersey was found days later in the ceiling tiles of the visiting locker room. Who could have stolen Jordan’s threads? Was it an employee of the Magic wanting to sell it somewhere? Was it a player on the Magic playing a bizarre prank? We may never know.
1 Eddie Gaedel – #1/8
I know what you’re thinking, “who the hell is Eddie Gaedel?” Unless you’re about 80 years old and a major fan of baseball, you probably never heard of him before. You know that documentary about Will Ferrell throwing pitches at minor league baseball games? Well, those kind of PR stunts aren’t anything new to baseball, they’ve been going back since at least 1950.
Eddie Gaedel was a 26 year old, 3 foot 7 inch little person who signed with the St. Louis Browns on August 17, 1950 and played a game two days later. Before the game, he pretended to be the manager’s 9 year old son and was given the number 1/8 as both part of his cover and as a joke about his height.
Gaedel took the plate in the second game of a double-header against the Detroit Tigers at the bottom of the first inning. He was walked after four straight balls, probably because the pitcher walked him intentionally.
It turned out to be a publicity stunt by the team’s owner, to get attention for them and Falstaff Beer. Still, Gaedel is the only recorded player in the history of professional sports to wear a fraction as a jersey number.