On January 26, 2014, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett returned to the Garden in Boston for the first time since leaving the Celtics in the July 2013 trade that sent them (and Jason Terry) to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries’ expiring contract, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph, and first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. In the intervening time since the trade, both teams have been bad, at points almost unwatchable. Look at Boston coach Brad Stevens’ face in this screen grab from the Pierce / Garnett homecoming game.
That score! Blegh. But before getting to the game (or maybe putting off having to play it), the Celtics showed video tributes to both Pierce and Garnett on the jumbotron to continuous standing ovation from the crowd. (Pierce’s included that song from The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty—the one that goes “ah ah ah ah ahhhhh oh ohhhhhh”—which apparently makes me tear up immediately now.) Both videos included cuts to the rafters showing Boston’s retired jersey numbers, where two blank spaces were awaiting numbers 34 and 5. It was great.
But that got us talking here in the ALTTAB Dome. Obviously Pierce’s number will be retired by the Celtics—but Garnett? He only played there for five years. Look at his Basketball Reference page. Sure he won his title Boston, but he’s the best Minnesota Timberwolf ever and he was there for 12 years! Do they even have any retired jerseys? Stephon Marbury? Why would the Celtics take him away from Minnesota? Can two teams retire a player’s jersey?
On looking into it, I found that retired jerseys are way more interesting and complex than I anticipated. So here we go, ALTTAB Radio’s Top Five Fun Facts About NBA Retired Numbers.
In the first place, yes, more than one team can retire the same player’s jersey. The most egregious instance of this is in Miami, where the Heat have retired Michael Jordan’s 23. This was done in 2003—Miami’s franchise had just turned 15 and they didn’t yet have any numbers in the rafters. Michael Jordan was in the middle of his unfortunate unretirement with the Washington Wizards. On the occasion of Jordan’s first visit to Miami that season, the Heat decided to retire number 23 with a presentation that felt almost like a eulogy. And in an extra kick in the gut, the Heat decided to display the number on a jersey that was vertically split between Chicago’s red and Washington’s blue, forever reminding us that, yes, those Wizards years did happen.
While most of the retired numbers honored by NBA teams correspond to jersey numbers, several do not. For example, Red Auerbach’s retired number with the Celtics is 2, as the team indicated that he was the second most significant person in the team’s history, after team founder Walter Brown. Three coaches, Red Holzman with the Knicks, Bobby Leonard with the Pacers, and Doug Moe with the Nuggets, have the win totals with the team as their retired numbers, 613, 529, and 432, respectively. The Portland Trail Blazers retired the number 77 in honor of their coach Jack Ramsey, after he won the 1977 NBA Championship.
Six announcers have had their microphones retired: Chick Hearn (Lakers), Joe Tait (Cavaliers), Johnny Most (Celtics), Rod Hundley (Jazz), Bob Blackburn (SuperSonics/Thunder), and Dave Zinkoff (76ers).
The team with the most retired numbers is the Boston Celtics, with 23. Next, surprisingly, are the Suns with 13, followed by the Blazers with 12. Utah, Sacramento, Detroit, the 76ers, and the Lakers all have ten. Four teams– the Grizzlies, Raptors, and Bobcats (all expansion franchises less than 20 years old) and Clippers (in a remaining vestige of their former role as the perennial worst team in sports)– have no retired numbers. The most common retired number is 32, which has been retired by nine teams: Utah (Karl Malone), Seattle/OKC (Fred Brown), San Antonio (Sean Elliott), Portland (Bill Walton), Philadelphia (Billy Cunningham), Milwaukee (Brian Winters), the Lakers (Magic Johnson), Brooklyn (Dr. J), and Boston (Kevin McHale). The second most common number is 10, retired by eight teams.
Individuals who have had their numbers retired yet logged only short tenures with their teams were so honored for a variety of reasons, a much greater diversity that the stalwarts among the long tenured. The shortest was one year, played by Wendell Ladner with the Nets. Ladner died in a plane crash in 1975 at 26 years old. Though the Nets have not formally retired his number 4, it is understood that they will not issue it to players. Nate Thurmond’s 42 has been retired by the Cavaliers, though he only played for them for two years. Clyde Drexler’s 22 was retired by the Rockets following his three year career end cap there; Charles Barkley’s 34 was retired by the Suns following his four years in Phoenix. (Both Barkley and Drexler also have their numbers retired by their “home” teams, the 76ers and Trail Blazers.)
In addition to these veterans experience late career brilliance, there are two other short timers with retired numbers who are notable, because both were touched by tragedy. The first is Dražen Petrović whose number 3 was retired by the Nets after only playing with the team for three years. Petrović was killed in a car crash in Germany while asleep in the passenger seat. A semi-truck coming the opposite direction had broken through the median on the highway and Petrović’s girlfriend, the driver, had no chance to avoid it. The second is Malik Sealy, journeyman small forward, good friend of Kevin Garnett, and only player to currently have his number retired by the Minnesota Timberwolves. He played two seasons with the team. Sealy was killed by a drunk driver coming the wrong way on the freeway in downtown Minneapolis in 2000. Sealy’s death profoundly affected Garnett, who had “Malik Sealy RIP” tattooed on his right arm. When Garnett was traded to the Celtics, he had Adidas add “2 Malik” on the inside of the strap of his signature shoes, with the text facing the point of view of the person wearing the shoes:
When Garnett made his way to Brooklyn as a member of the Nets in 2013, and number 5 was unavailable (as it was retired in honor of Jason Kidd– as a player in the 2000s, not as a coach currently), he chose to wear number 2 for Sealy.
It will be fitting then, after Garnett and Pierce celebrate their dominant Celtics teams and see their numbers lifted among Bird, McHale, Parrish, and Auerbach in Boston, that Garnett will then return to Minnesota, to be enshrined twice, joining his friend Malik one last time on the basketball court.