When Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in the early spring of 1995, it was hardly a surprise. He’d been flirting with the idea for months, the baseball team he was slumming with was in the middle of a players’ strike, and he was still technically under contract with the Chicago Bulls. By the time he issued his famous “I’m back” fax, we were all pretty used to the idea that Jordan was, well, back.
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What we weren’t used to was the man’s new uniform. For nine seasons Jordan had worn No. 23 with the Bulls. He’d chosen No. 45 to wear in the Chicago White Sox minor league system, but many assumed this was only because the Sox featured hot shot Robin Ventura with No. 23 at the time, and MJ didn’t want any conflict should he be called up to The Show.
Finally “back,” Jordan still worked with No. 45 amongst his new’ish Chicago teammates and, well, he wasn’t exactly himself. After 22 mostly underwhelming regular and postseason games with the number, Jordan returned to his familiar No. 23 after some infamous comments from Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson – the Chicago native was bold enough to point out that MJ just wasn’t the old MJ in the new number.
Some 21 years later, someone new has MJ’s old number:
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) June 27, 2016
That’s Denzel Valentine, Chicago’s first lottery pick since 2008, choosing to basically wear the Bulls’ version of the unspoken 13th floor, a carryover from his time spent in Michigan State wearing No. 45. You’d think the Bulls would have noticed this in the scouting process.
The Bulls unofficially classify No. 2 as the team’s true unlucky number, it went unretired after Bulls legend Norm Van Lier hung up his sneakers, with Stormin’ Norman said to have put a bit of a hex on the digit after Chicago chose to retire backcourt mate Jerry Sloan’s No. 4, while declining to honor the late Mr. Van Lier. Brad Sellers wore the uniform and stunk, Eddy Curry wore the uniform and gathered 14 defensive rebounds in four seasons with the team, and (current Bulls executive) Chicago native Randy Brown had to be talked out of wearing the number by Van Lier himself prior to the 1996-97 season.
Jordan and now Valentine’s No. 45 has no such ignominy behind it, unless you count sneering at the kid that dared wear MJ’s No. 45 jersey to school or (heaven forbid) the court post-No. 23 switch as shameful. And we do. In the mid-1990s, in the years before it was hep-as-tomorrow to wear an ancient Damon Stoudamire jersey to an outdoor concert, this was sports history’s quickest “ha-ha”-moment.
Valentine can change all that. He isn’t the first to put No. 45 on post-Jordan: CBS Sports’ Ananth Pandian points out that Luke Schenscher, Rasual Butler and Paul Shirley have all worn the number (OK, the last one is a little embarrassing). The guy is a legitimate all-around talent, and if his knees hold up at the pro level he could turn into a bit of a steal for a late lottery player.
On top of that, we tend to get over these things. Bulls fans have stopped giving double-takes to Doug McDermott as he struts around in John Paxson’s No. 5. Joakim Noah’s legendary Bulls career was worked while in Luc Longley’s No. 13, and even Charles Oakley (traded to New York on this day 28 years ago) was probably able to get past Mike Dunleavy wearing his No. 34.
Valentine in No. 45, however, will look weird for a while. It will remind of that two-month spread with Jordan wearing something unfamiliar, trying to find his sea legs on a team that just wasn’t ready for him yet. Reminding of all those kids in the years that followed that probably should have chosen to just pass on wearing anything basketball-related, if the No. 1 option was No. 45.
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