5 of the most dramatic jersey number changes in NBA history, from Michael Jordan to LeBron James

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·4 min read
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LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were dispatched in the first round of the NBA playoffs, marking the earliest postseason exit of his 18-year career.

In theory, the quick playoff exit had the potential to grant James a rare moment of reprieve, but it appears his mind already is set on next season as reports indicate he intends to wear No. 6 for the Lakers in 2021-22. Anthony Davis previously wore No. 23 with the New Orleans Pelicans but will stick with No. 3 in Los Angeles.

James, who wore No. 6 during his four seasons with the Miami Heat, has sported No. 23 for much of his career, including his first three seasons with the Lakers.

With this new start for James in mind, we looked at five of the most dramatic jersey-number changes in basketball.

Charles Barkley: No. 32, Philadelphia 76ers

Charles Barkley often is associated with the Phoenix Suns, but he spent the bulk of his career with the Philadelphia 76ers — and made one of the more touching basketball gestures in the City of Brotherly Love.

When Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV and forced to retire in 1991, Barkley contacted the 76ers and Billy Cunningham — for whom the number was retired — and made sure he donned No. 32 in honor of his friend. The move created turmoil in Philadelphia, but Barkley’s heart was in the right place.

Michael Jordan: No. 45, Chicago Bulls

Perhaps the most famous jersey number change ever, Michael Jordan returned from retirement in 1995 with a historic announcement — “I’m back” — and a new look. Jordan, who made No. 23 famous and created a brand around it, returned wearing No. 45. He said at the time he had wanted his late father to have seen his last game wearing No. 23; Jordan also wore No. 45 in high school.

After losing an Eastern Conference semifinal game to the Orlando Magic, Jordan returned to his usual No. 23 — a decision that incurred a $100,000 fine — but his time wearing No. 45 was etched into history.

Kobe Bryant: No. 24, Los Angeles Lakers

The late Kobe Bryant, the only player with two numbers retired by one franchise, wore No. 33 as a high school phenom at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa. Of course, he could not wear the number when he joined the Lakers because it was retired for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Bryant landed on No. 8 instead and made it his own, followed by No. 24, which he adopted as a sign of growth and a new phase in his basketball life. Both Nos. 8 and 24 now hang at the Staples Center in his honor.

LeBron James: No. 6, Los Angeles Lakers

James entered the NBA honoring one of his idols — Michael Jordan — for the first seven seasons of his career. When he left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, he decided to memorialize another: Julius Erving. Although James’ name sometimes is overshadowed by his predecessors, it’s easy to see hints of Erving’s game in James’ approach to basketball, as was the case for Jordan and players of his era.

James will make the switch after the July 16 release of “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” according to The Athletic.

Kevin Durant: No. 7, Brooklyn Nets

Although an athlete’s jersey number can appear trivial, the selection often is born out of reflection and emotion. That extends to Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant, who chose No. 35 in honor of a fallen mentor.

Charles Craig, a youth-league coach who made an impact on Durant’s life, was killed at age 35. Durant, then 16, decided to wear the number soon after, and he carried it with him to Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma City and Golden State.

Durant was quick to recognize that the No. 35 was worn in honor of a loved one, but he decided to switch to No. 7 when he joined the Nets and started a new chapter in his career.