Bill Russell and the future of league-wide jersey retirements


The NBA broke a long-standing tradition on Thursday with the announcement that they would retire No. 6 across the entire league, in honor of NBA great Bill Russell who died on July 31. Any players currently wearing the number are allowed to continue doing so, but no new No. 6 jerseys will be issued. 

Up until now, no NBA player had a number retired by more than three teams. It seems the league was reserving this universal honor for the undisputed winner. In addition to winning a record 11 NBA titles, Russell became an active voice in the civil rights movement and a worthy recipient of the NBA’s honor.

Here’s a look at some of the history of league-wide jersey retirements and some potential names that could be the fourth addition to this exclusive club.

What other numbers have been retired league-wide?

Russell joins an extremely exclusive club of Jackie Robinson and Wayne Gretzky as the only other athletes to have their numbers retired league-wide. 

The MLB paved the way in 1997 by retiring No. 42 in honor of Robinson, the Dodgers’ star second baseman who changed sports forever in 1947 when he broke baseball’s color barrier. Three years later, the NHL followed by honoring Gretzky, widely considered the greatest hockey player ever.

Similarly, this honor is a testament to Russell’s indisputable reputation as a winner and in recognition for his many contributions beyond the court.

Time will tell who will be the next athlete to earn this distinction, but Russell’s addition to the list only affirms the prestige of such an honor. 

What are some possible jersey numbers that could be retired league-wide next?

Michael Jordan (23)

Michael Jordan’s 23 remains one of the most coveted numbers in basketball at every level and is frequently reserved for players with distinct leadership and offensive skills. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are just two of the most recent stars to don Jordan’s number. 

In that same vein, however, James is now leading the charge to retire the number altogether. James first started wearing 23 in high school, but changed to No. 6 when he joined the Miami Heat and now wears it for the Los Angeles Lakers. To him, Jordan’s legacy is simple.

“There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwayne Wade if there wasn’t a Michael Jordan first.”

Jordan is so synonymous with the number 23, that his name is often substituted well beyond the basketball court. For example, 23rd birthdays are often referred to as someone’s “Jordan year.”

While the league is unlikely to announce another league-wide jersey retirement so quickly after Russell, Jordan is the presumed next up on the NBA’s short list.

Lou Gehrig (4)

Gehrig’s career was tragically cut short, but the Iron Horse left a profound impact on his sport. 

During his 17-year career with the New York Yankees, Gehrig won the triple crown, two American League MVP awards and six World Series rings. His career started to decline midway through 1938 and into the 1939 season when he was diagnosed with ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that later became more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Gehrig made countless contributions to both the baseball diamond and medical research. A moment that perfectly embodied this intersection of his career and personal life was his 1939 address to Yankee Stadium, weeks after his diagnosis was made public. 

In the speech, Gehrig said:

“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement for you fans. … I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

Gehrig died less than two years later at the age of 37. 

Pat Tillman (40)

NFL safety Pat Tillman spent four seasons in the league, consistently exceeding expectations, before enlisting to make the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield. 

Drafted in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman started ten games his rookie season and had the fourth-most tackles for the Cardinals. His dedication and willingness to sacrifice was first on display when he turned down a $9 million offer from the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals. 

At the conclusion of the 2001 regular season, Tillman turned down a $3.6 million offer to stay in Phoenix. Instead, he opted to enlist in the U.S. Army with his brother, Kevin. 

Tillman was killed the following spring in eastern Afghanistan. His death was originally believed to be the result of an ambush, but a later investigation ruled his death a product of friendly fire. 

The ensuing investigation revealed layers of controversy ranging from allegations of a cover-up by the government and indications that Tillman had grown opposed to the war himself. He remains a legend in the sports world as someone who traded in fame and glory for service.

Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. 

Kenny Washington (13)

Washington might be the most famous sportsman you’ve never heard of. The running back was the first African-American player to sign a contract with the NFL, a full year prior to Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier.

The similarities between Washington and Robinson’s life are startling. The two first met as teammates at UCLA, playing on both the baseball and football teams together. Washington was famously Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher’s first pick to add to the roster, but he was unwilling to commit to Durocher’s stipulation to play in Puerto Rico.

Washington generated NFL buzz out of college, but every team eventually succumbed to the opposition to integration. His big break came in 1946 when the Cleveland Rams relocated to his hometown, Los Angeles, and wanted the Coliseum, a public stadium funded by taxpayers of all races. 

Facing mounting pressure, the Rams signed Washington on March 21, 1946 at the age of 28. By the time he made it to the league, he was battling injuries and age, but he still managed to record three solid seasons, leading the league in yards per attempt his second season. Washington’s 92-yard touchdown run remains the franchise-longest record for longest score from scrimmage. 

Washington died in 1971 at the age of 52, a little over a year before Robinson. 

Until recently, his legacy was often overlooked, in part due to the relative popularity of baseball at the time and his shortened career. In recent years, his family has worked to keep his story at the forefront of sports. 

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