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It has been a mystery 30 years in the making, one of the NBA’s biggest — perhaps until now.
On Valentine’s Day 1990, Michael Jordan’s No. 23 was not yet the jersey emblematic of a G.O.A.T., although the Chicago Bulls legend already had MVP and Defensive Player of the Year to his name.
“Jordan was obviously a famous player,” says Sam Smith, the Hall of Fame sportswriter and author of “The Jordan Rules” who covered the Bulls for the Chicago Tribune then and still does now for NBA.com, “but the jersey number wasn’t ‘quote’ iconic yet because the Bulls hadn’t won anything.”
At the very least, the person responsible for stealing Jordan’s No. 23 jersey from Orlando Arena’s visitors’ locker room prior to the Bulls’ game against the Magic on Feb. 14, 1990, should be credited for the attempt to make a sound investment. Not that Jordan would even concede that much.
“That has never happened to me before,” the notoriously superstitious Jordan told The Orlando Sentinel’s Tim Povtak prior to a 135-129 overtime loss, Chicago’s fifth in six games. “It’s pretty irritating because you’re accustomed to certain things and you don't like to have things misplaced.”
Searches conducted by equipment personnel and arena security turned up nothing prior to tipoff. According to Rodney “Sid” Powell, the equipment manager and director of team operations for the entirety of the Magic’s existence, “people were accusing Magic personnel of stealing the jersey, cleaning crews, just about anyone working in the building that day.” He is sure the visiting locker room was dead-bolted and secured with a lock and key following Chicago’s morning shootaround.
“We always assumed it was just some clubhouse worker,” says Smith. “Back then the locker rooms were open to everyone. Celebrities were always in there pregame and postgame getting autographs from Jordan. I remember refs at times getting autographs from him pregame. It was another time.”
A locker-room attendant placed Jordan’s uniform by his locker at 5:30 p.m., Povtak reported from the arena that night. “By 5:45, when players began arriving, the jersey was gone without a trace.” Other reports at the time and more recently indicated the jersey disappeared closer to shootaround.
“I know when MJ found out his jersey was missing he was very upset and did not want to wear a different jersey,” Powell recollected with Yahoo Sports. “Luckily the Bulls staff carried a backup jersey just in case something was to happen, like a ripped jersey or in this case a missing jersey.”
Teams carry duplicate jerseys now. They didn’t then, when teams flew commercial and traveled lighter to cut costs. According to Smith, the Bulls scoured the stands for a No. 23 Jordan jersey that would fit him. None did. All Bulls equipment manager John Ligmanowski had on hand was a nameless No. 12 jersey. Jordan begrudgingly wore it, scoring 49 points in 47 minutes of defeat.
A typical performance, a not-so-typical result. When Matt Maloney debuted as No. 12 for the Bulls years later, the late and legendary Bulls broadcaster Red Kerr revealed that Jordan removed his No. 12 jersey that Valentine’s Day in 1990 and declared, “I’ll never wear this again.” And he never did.
Jordan was back to his white No. 23 jersey when the Bulls returned home from a six-game trip that saw five losses, giving Ligmanowski ample time to supply fresh red duds for the road. They rattled off nine straight wins en route to 55 in a season that ended against the Detroit Pistons in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. The rest is history. (As fate would have it, Jordan also famously switched from the No. 45 he wore for 18 games upon returning to the NBA in 1995 back to No. 23 in Orlando.)
Nameless No. 12 jerseys are on sale at NBA.com for $300, which might just be the real theft here. After all, they never did find that missing red No. 23 jersey — or so conventional thought once went.
As the Magic continued to investigate in the days after Jordan’s jersey disappeared, someone noticed an out-of-place ceiling tile in the visitors’ locker room, according to Powell. Sure enough, there was the jersey, tucked away for safekeeping. Arena security “got a little worried and began spilling the beans,” Powell tells Yahoo Sports. One of their own concocted “this master plan.”
“In the end it was proven that the jersey was taken by a member of the arena security personnel with the intent to keep,” adds Powell. “The security member tried to come through the ceiling after the gameday shootaround in the morning. They were successful in getting to the jersey and must have planned on leaving the jersey in the ceiling for awhile to come and retrieve at a later date.”
The. Dude. Went. Through. The. Ceiling. “Mission: Impossible” style. And lost his job because of it.
Powell says “the jersey was retrieved and eventually sent back to the Bulls.” Except, Ligmanowski and Bulls senior director of public and media relations Tim Hallam — two of the few holdovers left from the pre-dynasty days — do not recall ever getting the stolen No. 23 jersey returned to them.
“What happened with it when it was returned,” says Powell, “I guess we will never know.”
Some mystery remains 30 years later, just not in Orlando. The jersey is still out there somewhere. Presumably, a disgruntled Chicago mail carrier or Bulls mailroom employee could have Jordan’s No. 23 hanging in a man cave for the ages. The story is worth more than the jersey ever was.
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