History, conspiracies and Jordan: Why 23 is sport’s most legendary number

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The ancient Chinese believed numbers conveyed sexuality, with even numbers being feminine, odd numbers being masculine and prime numbers were considered to be the most masculine.
As a number made up of two consecutive primes – one of which is the only even, or feminine, prime number – the Chinese placed a mystical status on the number 23.

But it’s not just the ancient Chinese that were obsessed with 23. Wider culture has been too, and there is even a group of people called ‘23rdians’ who uncover all the times it crops up in history.

In the Bible, Numbers 23:23 contains the phrase “What hath God wrought”, which was also the first message sent in code by Samuel Morse in 1843 and if you add up the numbers of the year Kurt Cobain was born (1967) and died (1994) you also get 23.

And there’s more: Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in our genetic makeup, Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times and the medieval Catholic military order, the Knights Templar, had 23 grand masters. Jim Carrey even starred in a 2007 movie called ‘The Number 23’ in which a troubled man becomes obsessed with a book, fittingly entitled ‘The Number 23: A Novel of Obsession’.

And all of that is without even mentioning sport and the collection of the world’s most recognisable stars who have brought the number into modern day fame.

The most famous person to wear the number, and also the first genuine superstar to wear it, was Michael Jordan. But his reasoning wasn’t based on any superstition, historical events or ancient Chinese teachings – it was because of his brother.

Larry Jordan was actually the better basketball player when the pair were youngsters and MJ only picked up the sport in order to play with his older brother. Michael initially preferred baseball.

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Larry wore No.45 for the brothers’ varsity team so Michael, wanting to be like his older sibling, picked 23 – as close to exactly half of Larry’s number as he could get – and a legacy was born.

He continued to don the 23 for the University of North Carolina and then most famously in the NBA for the Chicago Bulls. He did wear different numbers for the Bulls twice however, for a few games when he returned from his first retirement wearing No.45 (his baseball number and his brother’s number).

In his book, Jordan wrote, “When I came back, I didn’t want to play in the last number that my father had seen me wear. Because he wasn’t around, I thought of my return as a new beginning.

“When I came back, I thought 45 was perfect because I did have an association with the number. Bad luck. It didn’t take long for me to change back to 23. It was part of me, but not in the professional basketball environment.”

There was also the now infamous “No.45 doesn’t explode like No.23 used to” quote from Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson which pushed Jordan to change back.

The only other time was when his regular No.23 went missing prior to a game, forcing him to wear 12 – as close to half of 23 as he could get.

The next man to wear it is a little closer to home for Australians, with cricketer Shane Warne selecting it as his ODI number in honour of his childhood hero, Australian rules footballer and Hall of Famer Dermott Brereton.

Brereton was an AFL legend, known for playing hard and being a bit of a showman to boot – as well as having a fairly outrageous social life. Sound familiar?

Warne famously passed his No.23 shirt on to Michael Clarke to signal the end of his days wearing the green and gold threads in 2004 following his 12-month ban for diuretic use.

“If people didn’t believe me for the last 18 months, hopefully they do now,” Warne said at the time.

“I’ll have a think about the number 23,” Clarke added. “But I’m honoured to have received it from Shane Warne”.

The move fuelled speculation that Clarke would do that same thing with his number once he retired but that never happened and now D’Arcy Short wears it.

In AFL, as well as Brereton, there is also Buddy Franklin, who has worn 23 in every season except for his first and has himself become synonymous with the number in Australia.

Globally, however, after Jordan – and because of Jordan – there are two other standout owners of the No.23.

The first is David Beckham, arguably the most recognisable sportsman – former or current – on the planet.

He wore the No.7 at Manchester United where he carried on a legend of its own, but it wasn’t until he joined Real Madrid in 2003 that he wrote his name into the legend of another – 23.

Real Madrid captain Raul wore 7 at the time and so Beckham, ever the expert at self-promotion and marketing, opted for the vacant No.23, in honour of Jordan.

“David told us that he would like the number seven, but that he would never ask for it with Raul in the side,” Real Madrid’s former sporting director Jorge Valdano told AS. “We spoke to him about the numbers four and 23. He asked my opinion and I told him I prefer the classic numbers from one to 11.

“But I also told him that I understood things had changed and today’s fans can easily accept any number. He said he thought it was a bad idea to delay a decision on the subject. Finally, his wife intervened to say something like: ‘The number 23 didn’t do Jordan any harm.’

“You can’t argue with a statement like that. David looked at me and said: ‘The number 23 then’.”

Like many things, he made the 23 fashionable again, especially in football, with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Isco, Mesut Ozil and Christian Eriksen all wearing it during their careers.

He went on to wear it at LA Galaxy where he is credited as one of the main driving forces in the growth of MLS and football in America over the last decade.

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However, the most famous man still wearing 23 is LeBron James, a star in LA, like Beckham, who was inspired by Jordan, also like Beckham.

“So when I started playing basketball, I was like: ‘Oh man, that two-three looks good. I wanna be able to fly like him,’” James said. “’I wanna be able to shoot like him. I wanna be able to dunk on somebody like him. I wanna be able to stick out my tongue like him in the air and yell in somebody’s face like MJ.’”

So for all of the ancient history, the conspiracies and obsessions from ‘23rdians’, in sport No.23 became legend simply because we all just wanted to ‘Be Like Mike’.