New Phone, Who Dis?

Interview requests. Pleas for money. Favors for friends and family. What do you do when everyone wants your number? If you play in the NBA, you change those digits—often.
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2020

On June 23, 2011, Iman Shumpert was drafted into the NBA. It was a special night for him, one he'd been dreaming about his entire life. But Shumpert wasn't the only one thrilled upon hearing then-NBA Commissioner David Stern announce that the New York Knicks had selected him with the No. 17 overall pick. There was his family. There were his friends. There were friends of the friends and friends of the family. Thousands of Twitter followers, too. Some, Shumpert knew. Most he hadn't met.

"Everyone was calling and messaging," Shumpert recalled earlier this season. "My phone just shut down. I couldn't use it."

Among those tryingand failingto reach Shumpert was the team that had drafted him. The Knicks wished to welcome him to the organization. They also needed him to come by their training facility the following morning. But Shumpert's phone never recovered. The Knicks were forced to go through Shumpert's agents instead. The agents delivered the message to their client, along with a new cellphone. It was connected to a new number, one with a New York-based 917 area code.

"Don't give it to anyone," they told him. "This is your NBA phone."

That number is one of the few possessions that Shumpert, whom the Brooklyn Nets waived in December, has carried with him throughout his nine-year NBA career.

"It's my work number," he said. "If you work in the NBA or play in the NBA, you know it. If not, you don't."

That phone number survived in-season trades and cross-country moves. Perhaps more importantly, it's given Shumpert the freedom to address the issue at the heart of that draft-night snafu.

"When my other phone number gets out, I change it," Shumpert said.

Most Americans go through life with one cellphone number. They receive it in middle school or high school, keep it through college and bring it with them into the workforce. They use it to call their bosses. They use it to call their mothers. It never changes. Everyone—from their bosses to their mothers—knows how to reach them.

NBA players aren't like most Americans, and not just because they're graceful and tall. "Imagine walking down the street and knowing that every single person you see wants something from you," one National Basketball Players Association executive said. Selfies. Interviews. Seed money. A video for a nephew's bar mitzvah. And what better way to gain access to an NBA player than by seeking out his personal phone number?

Aware of this dynamic, players in recent years have devised a solution, one unheard of throughout most of the country.

"People find your number and just start calling you," Atlanta Hawks All-Star point guard Trae Young said of the ease with which players' numbers sometimes get passed after media interviews or via friends. "So I change mine all the time."

Trae Young said he learned quickly that the ease with which personal numbers of players get into the hands of people they don't know makes it wise to change his cell number often.
Trae Young said he learned quickly that the ease with which personal numbers of players get into the hands of people they don't know makes it wise to change his cell number often.Randy Belice/Getty Images

Young estimated that he changes his number every 5-6 months. Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner said he changes his number "a lot," which, he added, places him on the lower end of the spectrum. "Some guys, like Paul George, change it, like, every week." NBA veteran Taj Gibson said he's had "a bunch of teammates who change their numbers all the time." He recalled sitting around the Chicago Bulls locker room earlier this decade and hearing teammates shout, "Man, Derrick just changed his number again!" referring to then-Bulls teammate and 2010-11 NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose.

Changing a cellphone number can help a player maintain his privacy. But it can also create a new set of problems. For example: A few years ago, Kings forward Harrison Barnes changed his number for the first time since entering the NBA. "As you grow, some people go with you, some people don't," he said when asked why. Not long after, he ran into a friend. The friend mentioned a text exchange the two had shared—something about a pair of shoes.

"I didn't get any text," Barnes recalled saying. Only later did the two realize that the friend had been conversing with a stranger—the owner of Barnes' previous number.

Stories like that is why Rockets swingman P.J. Tucker has a rule for dealing with serial number changers. "I won't just text them blindly," he said. "Only calls. You have to make sure it's still their phone."

Some players are good about notifying friends and family, teammates and bosses after a number change. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said he often receives texts from players over the summer notifying him of a digits switch. Young, meanwhile, keeps an old, disconnected phone so that he always has his contact list on him—the Generation Z version of a rolodex.

However, many NBA players prefer to operate under the assumption that anyone who needs to reach them will eventually figure out how to. Tucker, for example, has six listings for Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe. "I can never remember which one is right," he said. As a counter, one Western Conference team inserted a rule into its player handbook stating that any player who didn't notify the team of a number change was subject to a fine.

Enes Kanter has watched a few veteran teammates over the years hand extra phones to young players to hold onto for the veterans to use during road trips.
Enes Kanter has watched a few veteran teammates over the years hand extra phones to young players to hold onto for the veterans to use during road trips.Brian Babineau/Getty Images

All of which is why finding other workarounds can be advantageous. Some players elect to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers. Enes Kanter, who's played for five teams since being drafted in 2011, said veterans occasionally hand their younger teammates a separate phone along with a set of instructions: "They'll tell a rookie, 'Keep it at home, don't show it to my wife or girlfriend and bring it to our next road game,'" Kanter said.

Other players hope deceiving unwanted callers can buy them more time. Sometimes, upon seeing an unknown number flash across his phone screen, Turner will hand the device to Pacers massage therapist Andrei Mikhailau. "They hear his Russian accent and say, "Oh, it's probably not Myles,'" Turner said. Other times, for incoming FaceTime calls, he'll ask a team video assistant to remove his Pacers gear and answer.

"They'll pretend they have no idea who I am," Turner said. "It's much easier than having to change my number."


Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. His new book, TANKING TO THE TOP: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports, will be released in March and is available for preorder here. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.

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