11 Former NBA Players Whose Numbers Should Be Retired
If there’s one NBA honor that commands anywhere near the pomp and circumstance of a Hall of Fame induction, it’s in having your number hung up amongst fellow team legends.
For the most part, Hall enshrinement and jersey retirement go hand in hand—one a humble embossed plaque among hundreds of others, the other an imposing totem strung forever to rafter.
And yet, there remain plenty of former players still waiting on that phone call from a former franchise.
What follows are 11 former legends who deserve—either by dint of statistics or a uniquely powerful ancillary impact—to have the lights dimmed and the crowd raised to raucous fervor in their honor.
These aren't the only 11, mind you. Just the 11 that came immediately to mind.
For our purposes, we’re leaving out some of the more obvious recent or near-retirees (Chauncey Billups, for example) in lieu of some of the game’s more second-tier talents.
Spoiler alert: Uwe Blab is not on this list.
John Starks, New York Knicks, No. 3
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more sentimental New York Knicks favorite than the kid from Oklahoma who pulled stints in the Continental Basketball Association and World Basketball League (also in bagging groceries) before finally finding his NBA footing with the Knicks in 1990.
Starks was in many ways the spark plug that got New York’s engine going—a fiery two-way threat who managed to forge well-publicized beefs with the star shooting guards of his era.
And while his career stats were by no means spectacular, Starks’ role on the mid-1990s Knicks was about as indispensable as it gets. From his [streaky] three-point prowess to his lockdown perimeter D, No. 3 epitomized the fight and fury of underdog who calls New York home.
He also once did this. Which, why the powers that be didn’t just raise his jersey right there, I’ll never understand.
Charles Oakley, New York Knicks, No. 34
You can’t sing the praises of Starks without heeding perhaps the single greatest cult favorite in Knicks history.
If Starks was New York’s quintessential pest, Oakley was its undisputed enforcer—a 6’9” block of bad so intimidating not even your grandmother would find the good in him.
Together with Patrick Ewing, Charles Smith and Anthony Mason, Oakley helped form one of the era's most formidable frontcourts. And though it never quite got over the championship hump, New York’s bone-crunching core continues to command an almost religious respect amongst Knicks fans.
Don’t believe me? Watch a game with a Knicks fan sometime and count how many times he or she begins a sentence with “Man, Oak wouldn’t have…” Then stop when you get to 50.
Like Starks, Oakley’s statistical impact never jumped off the page. In fact, Oakley didn’t really “jump” at all. Like, ever. But if you want to see a standing ovation—the kind that’ll give any sports nut goose bumps—hang No. 34 in the rafters of Madison Square Garden. Just be sure to bolt before the roof caves in.
Robert Horry, San Antonio Spurs, No. 25
For a borderline fringe player, Robert Horry surely is a polarizing fellow. Which tends to happen when you’re a career seven-point-a-game scorer whose stunning gift of serendipity resulted in the breaking of approximately 3,000,000,000 hearts.
The sheer fact that Horry was an integral part of seven NBA champions (three times with the Los Angeles Lakers and twice each with the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs) gives him an almost-unrivaled clout amongst his recent NBA brethren.
Rather, it’s in how Horry contributed to so many of those titles—he didn’t earn the nickname Big Shot Rob for nothing—that puts him in a class all by himself.
Why should San Antonio in particular hang Horry’s number? Well, he did hit quite a few of said big shots as part of two Spurs title teams, for one. But this jersey retirement would be more about the basketball culture San Antonio has fostered—one where castoff veterans can find a storybook second life—and the ways in which Horry helped define that phenomenon.
Look, it made sense in my head.
Rasheed Wallace, Detroit Pistons, No. 30
Come on, you saw this coming.
Like Oakley with the mid-1990s Knicks, Wallace in many ways came to typify his team’s toughness, albeit with a slightly more comedic streak. That Sheed was also a very, very talented two-way player—a versatile threat from anywhere on the floor—only highlights his monumental importance to Detroit’s 2004 title run.
That’s before we even get to Wallace’s secondary merits. Really, has there ever been a more universally popular cult player than No. 30? His trash talking, the way he jawed at the zebras—everything about Sheed screamed antiestablishment. And you know what? We were always happy to listen.
History may view Bill Laimbeer as the better basketball player, but he’s a useful template for gauging Wallace’s worthiness for a rafter banner. Because while Laimbeer managed to elicit genuine hatred amongst both peers and patrons, Wallace’s underlying lovability is exactly the kind of quality worth honoring.
Richard Hamilton, Detroit Pistons, No. 32
Look, we promise the is the last 2004 Piston. Until we get to Tremaine Fowlkes.
Billups may have been Detroit’s best player, but it was Hamilton—acquired in the Jerry Stackhouse trade two years previous—who served as the consistent go-to scorer. Without him, Detroit’s already middling offense in no way would’ve mustered the firepower to sniff the second round of the playoffs, let alone the Finals.
Rip’s longevity (he suited up for nine seasons in Detroit) only bolsters the case for his being an all-time franchise great—a sort of poor man’s Joe Dumars, if you will.
More practically, you really can’t honor Billups and Wallace without acknowledging Hamilton. Their fortunes—as players, as teammates and as winners—are simply too inextricably linked.
We’ll let someone else make the case for Ben Wallace.
Dikembe Mutombo, Denver Nuggets, No. 55
The case against Dikembe Mutombo: He didn’t log more than five years with any of the six teams that employed him over 18 NBA seasons.
The case for Dikembe Mutombo: His role as a bonafide ambassador—both in his native Congo and around the world—has done more for the game of basketball than many a Hall of Fame inductee.
Oh, and logging career averages of 9.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks with a PER of 17.2 while playing until you’re 42 years old aren’t bad resume bullets, either.
That leaves just one question: Which team claims him? If I’m the Denver Nuggets, I’m putting into motion plans to raise Mutombo’s No. 55 as soon as possible. Not only because of the great five years he gave your franchise, but for the graceful way in which he’s helped the game grow.
Also: He perfected the finger wag, a cultural contribution that probably deserves its own banner anyway.
Andrew Toney, Philadelphia 76ers, No. 22
Thus begins the three-slide basketball-hipster-rare-B-side-on-vinyl portion of the program.
If ever there was a player who could reasonably be described as having been robbed of his career, it was Toney, Philly’s explosive shooting guard whose playoff exploits yielded one of the best nicknames in NBA history: The Boston Strangler.
Toney was a key catalyst on the Sixers 1983 title team. And while Julius Erving and Moses Malone get most of the modern accolades, Toney’s athleticism and versatility were equally crucial to Philadelphia’s demon-exorcising run.
When Charles Barkley arrived one year later, little did he know he’d one day make this statement (via InsideHoops.com):
Toney was amazingly strong, he and Moses were the only ones on the team that could post me up. I thought he (Toney) was the best player on the team when I got here. We had Bobby Jones, Moses Malone, and Julius Erving, but the only one I was in awe of was Andrew.
Oh, and Pat Riley once called him “the greatest clutch player I’ve ever seen.” So there’s that.
Toney’s career was cut short by chronic knee problems at just 30 years old. Thankfully, the Internet has helped lend due credence to the case that Toney absolutely deserves to have his No. 22 up alongside those of his chip-winning teammates.
Arvydas Sabonis, Portland Trail Blazers, No. 11
By now we’ve all heard the story about how Sabonis—a basketball prodigy with point-guard skills in a center’s body—was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1986, only to have political forces beyond his control keep him from crossing the pond.
In fact, it took nearly 10 years before Sabonis, then 31 years old, was finally permitted to try his hand in the Association. Still, his seven-year NBA career garnered something of a cult following among NBA aficionados, who marveled at the 7’3” center’s peerless versatility.
Unfortunately, Sabonis’ time stateside was in many ways undermined by the exploits of his “Jail Blazers” teammates, although Portland did manage to make it two consecutive conference finals in 1999 and 2000.
Still, it’s impossible not to imagine what might’ve been had Sabonis been permitted to exhibit his fantastic talents on the game’s biggest stage. And that’s precisely why Portland—that bastion of beatific irreverence—would be the perfect place to hang the Lithuanian legend’s jersey, as a teary-eyed testament to one of the game's all-time what-ifs.
Bob Dandridge, Baltimore Bullets, No. 10
Here’s what tireless NBA historian Curtis Harris had to say in his comprehensive column on why Bob Dandridge belongs in the Hall of Fame:
The Greyhound should be a shoe-in [sic] for the Hall of Fame. He was the greatest two-way player at his position for a decade. In his 11 healthy seasons, his teams only missed the playoffs twice and had a winning percentage of 60%. He won two championships as the 2nd or 3rd best player in Milwaukee and as the best player in Washington. He made two more appearances in the finals and could always be counted on to raise his already stellar play to greater heights in the postseason as his points, rebounds and assists all went up in the playoffs. Sadly, I think time has already passed his candidacy by.
That’s quite the resume—even if it’s just the bare essentials.
In Dandridge, the Washington Wizards tout an unsung hero from the franchise’s bygone Baltimore Bullets glory days. To be sure, without Dandridge, the Bullets probably never capture the 1978 championship—which remains the team’s lone title.
The interceding three decades (and subsequent team name change) may have compelled Dandridge’s former team to ignore his contributions. But with the Wizards on the rise, there’s never been a better time to heed the steed that made Wes Unseld, Gus Johnson and Elvin Hayes’ jobs a whole lot easier.
Yao Ming, Houston Rockets, No. 11
Like Mutombo and Sabonis, Yao Ming’s career was as much about his basketball production as it was the game’s international impact.
On that latter front, no one comes even close to approaching Ming’s influence. Immediately after he became eligible for the 2002 NBA draft, Yao’s cultural clout in his native China was inescapable.
Indeed, his importance as a basketball ambassador is so pronounced, you almost forget the fantastic eight-year stat line: 19 points. 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, including All-Star appearances every single year.
Now if Clyde Drexler—Hall of Famer though he may be—can get his No. 22 in the rafters with just three-and-a-half seasons of work, surely Ming’s mighty impact warrants similar consideration.
Chalk this one up to a probable shoo-in a bit down the road.
Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls, No. 91
Everyone needs a hug sometimes. Even if that hug comes in the form of a giant white drape with your old number on it hanging from a giant steel beam.
Do the Chicago Bulls win three straight titles from 1996 to 1998 without Dennis Rodman. It’s possible. Would Michael Jordan care to find out? Nope.
Those who would peg Rodman as a mere mercenary willfully ignore how weirdly effective the Worm was in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense: the ideal weak-side high-post presence capable of dishing and demonizing the offensive glass.
If winning two titles with the Pistons is enough to get your number hung, what about three banners—with almost the same pure production—later in your career?
Rodman’s post-playing exploits weren’t enough to keep him from the Hall of Fame, and they shouldn’t be enough to keep him off the United Center’s ceiling.