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Monday, March 3, 2003
Updated: March 4, 12:56 PM ET
The glow of the numbers

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

First, there's that awkward, goofy-smiled moment of a player's official introduction -- the uniform too clean and stiff, the number just an empty assignation.

Julius Erving
The Doctor at work.

Then there are the years of sweat and motion. The playing years, when -- if a player is good and true, and a fan is loyal -- you start to feel something for his number. It takes on a life in these years. You follow it through the course of games, get to know the way it moves, identify with it, simply and intensely. The number insinuates itself into your waking and dreaming life in these years. You're a Nomar man, let's say, and you can't say how or when it started, but you've noticed that the world seems to fall and break into easy sets of five: five children crossing at the crosswalk, five geese flying in a V overhead, five golden rings, and so on.

And last, and most lastingly, come the numbers in the rafters and on the walls -- the retired numbers. These numbers have weight and depth to them. Time gathers in them. They echo with whole eras, vibes and styles of play, with signature moves and classic moments. Hung high and set off, they're more than numbers, they're invocations of the things a player once did.

When the Knicks retired Patrick Ewing's 33 Friday night, for instance, what they really retired was a baseline jumper, a scowl, and five Tar Heel pink slips from an early spring evening in '82.

Page 2's Got Your Number
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  • Uniform numbers almanac: Worst retired numbers and more.

  • Choosing numbers: ESPN analysts reveal why they wore their numbers.
  • A number is just a handle.

    Attached to Nolan Ryan's Houston 34 is the slow, methodical walk around the back of the mound that meant death to brave but foolish young hitters.

    A number seems precise, but it's only a hint and an approximation.

    LT's Giants 56 is a rough estimate of the vicious, spring-loaded angle at which his ankles bent when he came hard and mean from the corner.

    A number feels concrete.

    But you only touch Dr. J's Sixers 6 in the hope that some glimmer or whisper of the out-of-bounds-behind-the-board-under-the-bucket-tease-Kareem-lay-it-up-and-in shot will make itself known to you.

    We retire numbers out of respect for a player's accomplishments. We retire them because games have histories and the jerseys are a record of what's come before. But most of all, we retire them because the ritual -- the ceremonial letting go -- is a way of holding on, not only to the number itself (the steady, daily presence of which we miss), but to the distinctive bits of magic it practiced and the memories it inspires.

    Johnny Unitas
    Johnny U's No. 19: Precision and poise, guts and leadership.

    When the Yanks retired the Iron Horse's number 4, they also retired a straight-from-the-heart farewell speech to end all farewell speeches.

    When Edmonton hung up Wayne's 99, they hung up a supernatural feel for where the puck is headed.

    When the Celtics honored Red Auerbach, they honored the sour stench and sharp tongue around a winning stogie. And when they retired Larry Legend's number 33 they retired "who's playing for second" along with it.

    The retired number carries with it vestiges, traces. There's a kind of glow about it.

    Around Dick Butkus' 51 is the antsy steam coming out of his mouth, his nose, his eyes, and the cracked, cold ends of his twitching fingers, too.

    Isiah's 11 is throbbing with the pain of a twisted ankle.

    And Jackie Robinson's Dodgers 42 is full-up with spikes digging for home, arms that churn like mixer blades, and a seething, relentless dignity.

    You hang up a number because no one else can wear it, because no one else can fill it out.

    So, naturally, George Herman Ruth's 3 puts nicknames to rest.

    MJ's 23 Bulls uni is salted away with a shoulder shrug in Portland.

    The 19 Johnny U wore comes with towering over the line, the Joe Montana 16 and a timing route are a package deal, and John Elway's 7 is retired with time winding down and his boys behind.

    What accompanies the number belongs to the player, but it belongs to the fan, too. It's a product of his memory, his eye, his affinities and imaginings.

    The fan puts Rollie Fingers' moustache wax and savoir-flair beside the fireman's Oaktown 34.

    He sees Bobby Orr only one way -- diving -- in his number 4 Bruins sweater, and he retires the dive with the quatro.

    For him, Clyde Frazier's New York 10 is on a crowded banner with full-length fur, epic sideburns and some sweet orange Pumas.

    And in his mind's eye, Jim Brown's 32 ... well, with Jim, the thing is, nothing ever did, or ever will, seem retired. Not the player, not the number, not the legend, nothing.

    At base, numbers are a shorthand, a secret language spoken by players, fans, writers and historians. Like Jim Caple said in his terrific piece for this big numbers package, we see the numbers and we see the players. I say 9, you hear Teddy Ballgame. I doodle 44 on my notebook and Mr. Clutch comes immediately to mind.

    But more than call up the player's identity, a number, especially a retired number, can resonate ...

    Brooks Robinson's 5 with eye-black and the turf behind third, Reggie Lewis' 35 and Korey Stringer's 77 with sad questions, David Thompson's 33 with the end of a streak, big air, big hair, and a time when the Nuggets uniforms were actually kind of good looking, Joe Morgan's 8 with a pumping elbow, or Sandy Koufax's 32 with a mound-dragging knee, a swollen arm and a refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur.

    Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.