Basketball creates universal icons who transcend the sport itself. Over the past three decades or so, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James have stood tallest, genuine colossi whose names are familiar to the sporting pedestrian.
In the history of the National Basketball Association, no player however has achieved more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Across a career with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar became a six-time NBA champion, a six-time Finals MVP, a 19-time All-Star, and experienced more career wins on the court than any other.
He doesn’t just top the rankings of the highest points tally ever in a professional NBA career (with 38,387pts), he’s almost 1500 clear of his closest rival. He scored 1000 or more points in a record-setting 19 seasons, before he hung up his jersey and kicked off his kicks at the age of 42 years old in 1989, when he was still able to go toe to toe with players half his age. He even had a fight with Bruce Lee.
On 20 March 1990, the Los Angeles Lakers retired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's #33 jersey.
It’s not that the baller was elevated into the upper echelons of sporting lore, he himself elevated the prestige of the shirt retirement in sport itself. To have a jersey number taken away from all subsequent selection is an honour, one granted for the exceptional, in exceptional circumstances.
There are cases when the the shirt is unofficially retired, meaning either no player is willing to take it on, or the club are unwilling to provide it. In association football no one has adopted the number 25 since Gianfranco Zola, one of the greatest players to ever grace the Premier League, left Chelsea in 2003, nor Kobi Jones at LA Galaxy. Beautifully, almost all football in Japan remove the number 12, in honour of their fans’ support, adhering to the epithet of ‘the twelfth man’.
There is of course also, the tragedy. Marc-Vivien Foé, Emiliano Sala, and Davide Astori have had numbers retired following their passing in the prime of their respective footballing careers, and in Formula One, no driver will select ‘17’ to place on their helmet, a number that was left vacant after Jules Bianchi’s crash in 2014.
For the budding young sports star, aside from the medals and the trophies, the quest should be the acknowledgement from your peers, predecessors, and successors, that you have affected your sport like no other, and the symbolism that comes with that jersey retirement. like these five icons have had bestowed. Simply, no one can take their place.
Jackie Robinson: #42
An American hero, Robinson has honoured not just by a single Major League Baseball franchise, but MLB itself.
‘42’ was the number the first black star of the modern era wore with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and it is a number you will no longer see at your next ball game. In 1997, 41 years after his retirement and a quarter of century after his death, in everlasting tribute to Robinson it was decreed by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig that no major league baseball player will wear ‘42’ again.
Aside from one exception: on April 15. Thereafter known as ‘Jackie Robinson Day’.
Robinson broke down colour barriers when he stepped out onto the plate for the Dodgers in 1947, when he would go on to play 151 in the season, scoring 125 runs and a National League-best 29 stolen bases.
Robinson wasn’t simply a great player: a man, a presence who changed sport in the United States forever.
Bobby Moore: #6
The only Englishman to ever lift the FIFA World Cup as captain will always be West Ham’s Bobby.
We now all know that it was the east London outfit that did in fact beat West Germany, but none are they more proud of than that skipper of the Three Lions with the golden mane. The man who devoted 16 years of his life to the Irons.
It took 15 years after his untimely passing in 1993 for Moore’s Number Six to be permanently excluded from selection, with the tribute gratefully acknowledged by Moore’s widow, Stephanie:
“The legendary No 6 shirt is synonymous with Bobby and his illustrious career. Its retirement signifies deep respect, affection and admiration for all that Bobby achieved.”
Kobe Bryant: #8 and #24
Kobe Bryant tragically passed away in January 2020 when his helicopter crashed in Calabasas, California, leaving the world of basketball and beyond bereft. Bryant was on his way to take his daughter to her basketball practice. The man known throughout sport as Black Mamba retired from basketball in 2016, with five NBA rings and the status as the most talented player of his generation.
He played his whole professional career with the LA Lakers, beginning in 1996 where he took the number eight, choosing it because of the sum of his Adidas camp number, 143. After three championships, from 2006 until his retirement ten years later, ‘24’ adorned his back, the first high school number he had at Lower Merion. The change, Kobe would state, reflected growth and maturity, as well as harking back to his roots.
For the foreseeable future, the late star will likely be the only player in league history to have two numbers retired with the same team, the jerseys now a poignant pair of flags hanging from the ceiling of the Staples Center.
To reflect the effect he had on sport the world over, however, Bryant’s ‘24’ was posthumously granted the treatment by association football club AEL FC.
Acknowledgement in two sports? Few will ever be able to claim that.
Diego Maradona: #10
The greatest footballer the sport has ever seen? Arguably.
The greatest footballer to have ever played for Napoli. No question.
'Footballer' is a base term. Maradona is simply deified in Naples.
The Argentine arrived in the south of Italy in 1984 and became the man who brought the Italian championship to I Partenopei for the first time in their history, in 1987. They have yet to win Serie A since their second in 1990 and Maradona’s subsequent departure. There’s the perpetual, underlying feeling that Napoli may not want to, such is the reverence for the time of Diego.
Shirt numbers are synonymous with legends of football, but few can match the iconography El Pibe de Oro had with the number 10 with Napoli.
Sachin Tendulkar: #10
The ‘10’ in football belongs to the diminutive Maradona, but in cricket it is eternally on the armour of another Little Master, the greatest batsman of all time, Sachin Tendulkar.
Tendulkar chalked up the most runs in Test and ODI cricket, the most hundreds in the two occasions, and the highest number of centuries in international cricket: Tendulkar, the only man to produce a century of centuries on the international stage.
The number 10 jersey was worn by Sachin throughout his ODI career and for one T20 international before his retirement in 2013 after a 24-year playing career.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has consistently rejected calls to have ‘10’ officially retired, but it’s being down the veneration of his contemporaries and those that have followed, creating an almost unparalleled consensus, that shows how much Tendulkar provided to cricket.