Remember When Retiring Jerseys Meant Something?

One of my favorite basketball stories of the past 10 years involves Brian Cook. Remember him? Cook was drafted by the Lakers with the 24th pick of the 2003 NBA Draft. Cook had played his college ball at the University of Illinois where he wore the No. 34 jersey for the Fighting Illini. Unfortunately for him, he was drafted by a team where that number was taken. It wasn’t just that the number was taken, but it was occupied by Shaquille O’Neal. So there would be no negotiations involving Rolex watches or Hawaiian vacations. So Cook chose the No. 7 instead. I haven’t confirmed this but it was probably because 3+4 = 7.

Cook’s rookie season ended when the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, after which the team underwent massive change. Out went Phil Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Rick Fox, and Horace Grant and in came Rudy Tomjanovich, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Vlade Divac, Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, and Jumaine Jones.

Odom had worn the No. 7 throughout his pro career. The story goes that Cook was okay with giving up the No. 7. It wasn’t like he had any kind of attachment to it after just one season. But when the Lakers asked him which new number he wanted he asked for Shaq’s old No. 34. I don’t know if the Lakers laughed in his face or just behind closed doors. While it would have been an unbelievable way of trolling Shaq, the Lakers told Cook that no Laker player would ever wear the No. 34 again — even after Shaq had spent that summer badmouthing both the organization and owner Jerry Buss.

Cook went with the No. 43 instead — the reverse of 34.

I’m sharing this story because it seems like the significance of jersey retirements is decreasing by the day. It doesn’t seem like we’re that far off from guys like Brian Cook having their jerseys retired. Heck, the Spurs just retired Bruce Bowen’s jersey. No knock on Bowen. He was a very good player, a great defender, and a million times better than Brian Cook.

The Lakers might be the only NBA team that still considers the gesture to be sacred. Consider that the Lakers have only retired the jerseys of Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Gail Goodrich. These legends now share that honor with Bruce Bowen, Sean Elliott, and Avery Johnson. And that’s just the Spurs.

Did you know the Miami Heat have retired jerseys for Dan Marino and Michael Jordan? Can anyone tell me when either of those guys suited up for the Heat? The jersey retirement has gone from one of the most respected traditions in sports to becoming an excuse for a team to sell tickets to a game in March against a terrible opponent.

The Celtics have retired so many jerseys that it seems like they have more numbers retired than available. After they retire those of Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, the only single-digits left will be Nos. 4, 7, and 8. That’s nothing. After they retire Ray Allen’s No. 20 and Paul Pierce’s No. 34, there will be no numbers available between 14-25 and only five available between 14-35.

I don’t know who’s fault it is but you certainly can’t blame it on the Lakers. That’s because their policy is pretty simple. No Hall of Fame, no jersey up in the rafters. Easy enough? I don’t know why more people don’t know this by now. So when I see articles or tweets weighing in on whether or not the Lakers should retire the jerseys of Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, or even Andrew Bynum, I feel the need to go out of my way to remind them of the Lakers policy. If you don’t meet that one requirement, then don’t even bother asking. Even Gail Goodrich had to wait 17 years after he was done playing before he was voted into the Hall of Fame by the veteran’s committee. As a result, Eddie Jones had to switch from No. 25 to No. 6 in 1996 when the Lakers retired it for Goodrich.

I’ve always been one of those people who believe that if you have to put any thought into whether or not someone belongs in the Hall of Fame, regardless of the sport, then they don’t belong. And since I believe that only athletes in the Hall of Fame should have their jerseys retired, it’s the same criteria. Exceptions can be made for guys like Drazen Petrovic and Bobby Phills, who tragically lost their lives while still being active players. But make no mistake, Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson were outstanding citizens who helped make San Antonio a championship city and did wonders for the community. I think that’s great and I don’t want to minimize the effect some players have on cities. But there has to be a better method by which to honor guys like Elliott, Johnson, and Horry that doesn’t involve them being honored in the same manor as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird.

It makes you wonder if the Lakers commissioning statues of Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Chick Hearn, and now Kareem Abdul Jabbar is their new method by which to honor the best of the best. It’s just too bad the old way has lost much of it’s luster.

In case you missed it – this week’s edition of Trend Creeper!

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