In almost every sporting matchup, the competitors are separated by the different uniforms they wear, and each player is separated by a number on the back of that uniform.
As some teams choose to put names on the back of their jerseys, and other teams choose to keep them blank, it are these numbers on the players’ backs that we, as sports fans, are forced to use to identify our favorites.
With only a finite number of usable numbers to be worn by athletes, there are clearly many instances over the course of sports history where multiple stars have donned the same number. And whether we like it or not, we are forced to mentally choose which of our favorite, or most memorable, players we are going to associate with any given number.
The following looks to stake the claim for the absolute top, most notorious numbers in sports uniforms history, and the one specific superstar who truly represents each of them.
We all know what to expect when we see Tiger wearing his red shirt on Sundays, when he is on the prowl. It may not be a number, so it didn't make my list. But it certainly is the way we identify with the greatest golfer ever.
Neon Deion. Prime Time. He wanted to be noticed, and he certainly was.
Not only did he master the art of covering a wide receiver in the NFL, but he also roamed center field for multiple MLB teams, and became the only person to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
He was one of the greatest two-sport athletes we have ever seen. His No. 21 signified one of the fastest, flashiest, most athletic players either sport has witnessed, and that statement remains true today.
No. 21 truly is Prime Time.
Is he the best fielding shortstop ever? Or the best hitting shortstop ever?
But he is the current face of one of the most storied and successful franchise in sports—the New York Yankees.
Since Jeter stepped on the field in ’96 (and won the Rookie of the Year), he has been to six World Series, winning four of them.
In 2003, he was named the captain of the Yankees—one of only 11 in their history—after an eight-year gap without one since Don Mattingly in ’95.
And his presence off the field in New York City has been nearly as strong as on the field.
While there have been many memorable single-digit jerseys worn by past Yankees, this No. 2 has been clearly one of the most.
Widely regarded as the greatest wide receiver football has ever seen, Jerry Rice is all over the record books.
Career leader in receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), touchdown receptions (197), and point scored by a non-kicker (1,256), just to name a few, his statistics today are still miles ahead of others.
There was a certain amount of modesty to his game despite all his successes—something we don’t see by many top wide receivers today – yet No. 80 was THE number for a player who had dreams of being a top receiver.
When you think of wide receivers, you think of No. 80, because of the greatest one who ever played.
He was the first EVER African-American Major League Baseball player in the modern era.
And while doing that, he managed to play in six World Series, winning one of them, and being selected to six consecutive All-Star games.
Oh yeah, and his No. 42 is retired by EVERY Major League Baseball team, in both the National and American leagues.
After being an All-American at Stanford, and picked No. 1 overall in the 1983 NFL Draft, Elway had an incredible career with the Denver Broncos.
He made it two five Super Bowls, winning two of them. And he is always remembered for “The Drive”, when he marched the Broncos 98 yards down the field to tie the Browns and go on to eventually advance to Super Bowl XXI—possibly one the most clutch performances we have ever seen.
There may be an argument as to whether or not John Elway was the greatest quarterback of all-time, but there is no argument that he made No. 7 synonymous with the most important position on the football field.
The Number 32 in fact is “Magic,” as we better know Earvin Johnson.
Magic came into the NBA in the beginning of the 1980s and immediately took over the game.
At 6’9”, he was the tallest point guard the league had ever seen, yet his court vision and passing abilities far exceeded all others.
His “magical” career was cut short in ’91 from sickness, but not before he battled Larry Bird in arguably the greatest NCAA Championship game ever played, won five NBA Championships, and added a plethora of other accolades to his resume.
While his attempted comeback in ’96 didn’t last very long, his legacy, and that of No. 32, remains.
He was known as “The Great One” but is famous for being the great No. 99.
He is the National Hockey League’s all-time leading scorer, with nearly 1,000 more points than second-place Mark Messier. He had numerous MVP seasons (nine), many Stanley Cup victories (four), and played for multiple franchises (four).
He even helped create a sort of Hollywood-style popularity for the sport of hockey while playing for the Los Angeles Kings.
If I may, with the assistance of the movie “Sandlot”:
Squints: But it was signed by Babe Ruth!
Smalls: Yeah, you keep telling me that! Who is she?
Ham Porter: WHAT? WHAT?
Kenny: The sultan of swat!
Betram: The king of crash!
Timmy: The colossus of clout!
Tommy: The colossus of clout!
All: BABE RUTH!
Ham Porter: THE GREAT BAMBINO!
This was a guy who had a number of nicknames even greater than his famous No. 3. Plus, and he was pretty good at baseball. I don’t think much more needs to be said. So I’m not going to.
The New York Giants’ linebacker redefined the way his position was played.
Whether he stood up in the box or put his hand down on the line, it didn’t matter—quarterbacks still feared for their well-being when No. 56 was on the field.
He was a 10-time Pro Bowler, league MVP in 1986, and led the Giants to Super Bowl victories in ’86 and ’90.
Some even call him the greatest defensive football player of all-time.
Six-time NBA champion. Five-time NBA MVP. Ten-time All-NBA First team. Nine-time All-Defensive team. 14-time All-Star. 1985 Rookie of the Year.
Sorry Lebron, you may eventually get your chance, but to date, no one in the history of the NBA is even worth the argument against Air Jordan as the greatest of all-time.
Basketball players across the world, from kindergarten to college, have chosen No. 23 to try to be “the next Jordan,” and that includes King James himself.
We can all remember the first day of basketball practice, when the coach would open the box of jerseys and a mad scramble to grab No. 23 would ensue.
This is easily the most recognizable number in the sports world, conveniently worn by one of the greatest athletes this world has ever seen.
No. 23, Michael Jordan. Case closed.