Remember when Michael Jordan came back from retirement wearing No. 45? Technically he still was Michael Jordan and everything, but . . . not really. After his Chicago Bulls lost in the playoffs that year, Jordan switched back to No. 23, went on to win rings 4-through-6 and all was right with the universe again.
Point being, an athlete’s number is every bit a part of his or her identity as the name their momma gave them.
And sometimes when players retire, the number goes with them because what they did while wearing it was so unfathomably, stupidly incredible, the possibility of anybody else doing it justice afterward couldn’t even be seriously entertained. No way. They own that number. Always and forever.
With all that in mind, we’ve decided to take two all-time greats of the same number from every major sport (plus a few more), and pit them against each other in an effort to ultimately decide: who wore it better?
You can stamp the NBA in the '90s as “MJ’s Era” and the 2010s as “LeBron’s Era.” Air Jordan and King James truly define once-in-a-lifetime talent. Both have worn numbers other than 23 (Lebron wore 6 with the Heat and MJ wore 45 in his second NBA stint), but we all know they belong in 23. When comparing the two, the most often cited statistic is Michael Jordan’s 6-0 Finals record, as opposed to LeBron’s 2-4 record. For some this is where the story ends. But we see potential to look further.
In the five major statistical categories, LeBron trails MJ in career scoring average and steals, but leads in rebounding and passing. The two have the same average in blocks. They both won the Finals MVP in all of their teams’ combined eight titles. MJ won a defensive player of the year award, and LeBron is widely considered the most versatile defender of all time in being able to guard every position on the floor. Looks pretty even to us.
The quarterback who led the Team of the '90s vs. the QB who took over the Team of the '80s. Both had brilliant college careers, absolutely horrific starts in the NFL and then went back to being brilliant again.
Troy Aikman won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys after an 0-11 rookie season in which his incredible chemistry with opposing cornerbacks yielded an impressive total of 18 interceptions (compared to nine touchdowns) and a 55.7 QB rating. Eventually, though, he'd turn himself into the most accurate passer of his era as one-third of the vaunted "Triplets" offense, which included running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin.
Meanwhile, Steve Young (great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young) went on to become the greatest left-handed scrambling Mormon in NFL history after overcoming his own struggles. Once the league that drafted him folded (bad start), he signed with the 1985 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (getting worse), before finding a spot on the Joe Montana-led 49ers as the team’s starting clipboard holder (OK, could be worse. See: 1985 Bucs).
After flashes of brilliance as a back-up, Young got his chance as The Man when the Niners dealt Montana to the Chiefs. Excellence followed. Two NFL MVP awards, a Super Bowl championship a Super Bowl MVP, and a career 96.8 passing rating (compared to Aikman’s 81.6), which is third all-time.
Willie Mays. The Say Hey Kid. The original five-tool prospect. Generally considered the best all-around player in the history of baseball until another “kid” entered the discussion: The Kid. AKA Junior. AKA Ken Griffey, Jr. They both had power, speed, and played baseball’s glory position – centerfield – like nobody had ever seen.
If not for being robbed of 266 games due to military service, Mays most certainly would have broken Ruth’s career home run mark before Hank Aaron. And if not for nagging injuries in the second half of his career, Griffey may have broken that mark.
As it shook out, Mays finished with a line of 660 HR/.302 BA/3,283 H, plus 12 Gold Glove Awards.
And Griffey? 630 HR/.284 BA/2,781 H/10 Gold Gloves.
In soccer the number 10 is worn by the best player, and these two guys are widely considered the best to ever play the game. It’s only fitting that the two played for different sides of the ball in the bitter Argentina-Brazil soccer rivalry.
Pele became famous for his flare in playing the beautiful game. Named for Thomas Edison (his birthname was Edson Arantes do Nascimiento), the footballer knew a thing about lighting the lamp, as they say in hockey. If he was on the field, it was almost a guarantee that he was going to put one in the goal, as he scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.
Maradona was so good that he adopted the nickname “El 10.” Maradona is widely known for the infamous “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup in the quarterfinal against England. In that tournament, the Argentinian striker/midfielder went on to win the Golden Ball in leading Argentina to a World Cup title.
Both performed at a high-level for 20+ years in the NHL, all with one franchise. Quiet, classy captains who led by example and always played the so-called “right way” from the center position.
Owner of one of the game's most wicked wristers, Joe Sakic is one of only a few players to win a Stanley Cup (twice), plus gold medals in the Olympics, World Cup of Hockey, World Championships and World Junior Championships. Almost every scoring record in Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche franchise history belongs to him, and his 1,641 career points put him at number nine on the NHL’s all-time list.
Just two spots ahead of Sakic on that list, with 1,755 points, is the longest serving captain for a team in NHL history, Steve Yzerman. “Stevie Y” hit the ice for the Red Wings at the age of 18, becoming the youngest player to ever wear the “C” for Detroit two seasons later. He’d go on to captain the Wings for 19 seasons and 1,303 games, helping his team win the Cup three times during that span.
Man vs. Beast was not only a TV show on Fox that featured Takeru Kobayashi challenging a Kodiak bear to a hot dog eating contest, but it’s also one of our categories in “Who wore it better?” Secretariat is widely considered the greatest horse of all time, and he wore the number 2 in his race at the Belmont. The stallion won that race by 31 horse lengths. Even American Pharoah’s dominant performance at the Belmont this year would have fallen 13 lengths short of Secretariat. That’s dominance.
When you think of Derek Jeter, you think of The Dive. “The Captain” is one of the greatest players ever for the New York Yankees, the winningest team in sports. He possessed that impossible-to-quantify “it” factor. As far as what you can quantify, he was sixth all time in hits, 10th in runs and first all time in playoff hits.
With careers marked by championships, an intense, life-consuming obsession with winning and a precipitous fall from grace, Tiger Woods and former Indiana University/Texas Tech men’s basketball coach Bob Knight have more in common than one might think, including fashion.
With victory on the line, both rocked signature looks that had their opponents seeing red – Coach Knight spewing obscenities from the sideline in a red sweater just a few shades deeper than his face (he hasn’t mellowed with age, by the way) and Tiger sinking cold-blooded putts in his "Sunday red" polo, a pump of the fist punctuating yet another Major, of which he's won 14. Knight's coaching resume, on the other hand, includes three NCAA championships, 11 Big Ten titles, and an Olympic gold.
Cristiano Ronaldo is not only one of the most freakishly gifted players in soccer history, he might be the fittest specimen on the planet. As such, he scores a lot of goals. And when he scores goals, he’s prone to popping that shirt off. Because he’s very fit. And he’d like very much to show you. It’s kind of his thing.
To the best of our knowledge, U.S. Women’s Team legend Brandi Chastain never really made a habit of shedding clothing during her playing days, but the one documented case of her doing so was pretty darn memorable. Career defining, in fact. With the U.S. and China tied after extra time in the 1999 World Cup, Chastain struck the winner on a penalty kick, ripped her jersey off and celebrated like . . . she just won the World Cup with a penalty kick.
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