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Movement to retire 23

A couple of nights ago, the NBA got a little treat from one of its most prolific stars: LeBron James.  On top of his exceptional play, as always, last season’s NBA MVP came out and said he will be changing his jersey number from 23 to 6 next season.  His reasoning? Michael Jordan’s number should be retired by the NBA, from every team.

Usually, retiring numbers are something that is left to the individual team, and no sport body since Major League Baseball’s retiring of Jackie Robinson’s no. 42 has considered retiring a number across the board.  It is a big step and the NBA has no previous history of even considering such a move, but since The King’s annoucement, the movement has picked up speed.

When one considers the reasons behind Jackie Robinson’s number retiring and Michael Jordan’s, there are a few key points to understand.  Jackie Robinson played baseball in a very volatile time for civil rights in the United States, and being the first black MLB player, he was forced to walk a fine line and be the face of the black race in a white sport.  His perseverance against the racial tension and sportsmanship laid the foundation for change in Major League Baseball, and his contribution to civil rights and sport was beyond what any other athlete at the time had ever accomplished.  The MLB did the right thing in retiring his number out of respect for the adversity he faced while doing what he loved: playing baseball.

Michael Jordan never had to fight the racial tension and be a figurehead in the civil rights movement as Jackie Robinson was.  In many ways, Jackie Robinson’s contribution to sport paved the way for athletes like Michael Jordan to take center stage in a major sport, competing under the lights and having the opportunity to achieve greatness.   Jackie Robinson’s aid to the end of racial segregation in baseball was an instrumental part of American sports history, and Michael Jordan didn’t have anywhere near the same pressure to take a stand, and not only play, but play well.

James does have a point in his request to see no. 23 be retired.  Living with the number 23 on his chest essentially has made his career into one where he tries to “Be Like Mike,”  and try to say he is the next Jordan.  The King can build his own legacy with a different number, reducing the number of direct comparison’s between the two.  The game they play is similar: they both dominate the other team and have an uncanny ability for the sport.  Jordan had a solid team built around him and he was the missing link that was needed for all the championships the Bulls won.  James doesn’t have the same talent around him, but James also hasn’t been able to come up in the clutch as often as Jordan did with game winning shots and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as regularly as Jordan.

And as long as LeBron lives by 23, he will forever be overshadowed by Jordan’s legacy.

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