True sports fans can't resist a good numbers game

Monday , July 28, 2014 - 9:57 PM

Long before Ambien, there was Wayne Gretzky.

Please, let me explain …

Like most sports fans, I’ve had a lifelong obsession with numbers. Not mathematical equations, mind you – perish the thought – but actual numbers; the kind athletes wear on their uniforms.

As a restless kid years ago, I’d lie in bed at night and count numbers until I fell asleep. Back then my daily responsibilities included memorizing the backs of baseball cards or box scores from the newspaper, so of course I was always hard at work crunching numbers.

It’s amazing I didn’t become a CPA, right?

I can’t remember all the numbers I knew back then, but I was young and carefree and I’d usually doze off somewhere between Maury Wills (No. 30, L.A. Dodgers) and George Gervin (No. 44, San Antonio Spurs).

Occasionally I’d make it all the way to, say, a Jack Ham (No. 59, Pittsburgh Steelers) or a John Hannah (No. 73, New England Patriots) but never a Jack Youngblood (No. 85, Los Angeles Rams) or heaven forbid a Buck Buchanan (No. 86, Kansas City Chiefs).

Later in life, as a grown up working for this newspaper, I was lucky enough to travel around the country covering some great sporting events. On a couple of occasions I woke up in the middle of the night, unable to recall what city I was in. Never once, however, did I forget my hotel room number because I’d always associate it with a sports number.



Room 103, for example, meant Fran Tarkington (No. 10, Minnesota Vikings) and Babe Ruth (No. 3, New York Yankees … duh). Room No. 2221 meant Emmitt Smith (No. 22, Dallas Cowboys) and Roberto Clemente (No. 21, Pittsburgh Pirates).

Room No. 258 meant I was on the second floor, by the ice machine. It also meant Fred Biletnikoff (No. 25, Oakland Raiders) and Joe Morgan (No. 8, Cincinnati Reds).

Room No. 577? Easy. George Brett (No. 5, Kansas City Royals), John Elway (No. 7, Denver Broncos) and No. 7 again, Pete Maravich (New Orleans Jazz).

And of course there were nights, after a particularly exciting game, when sleep was virtually impossible. It was then I’d play the numbers game again. It was a little like counting sheep, I suppose.

Sometimes I’d start with Robert Parrish (No. 00, Boston Celtic) and go all the way to Gretzky (No. 99, Edmonton Oilers).

By way of confession, No. 12 was almost always Roger Staubach, though sometimes I’d go with John Stockton. Conversely, No. 32 always went to Karl Malone (not Magic Johnson or Franco Harris) and No. 33 was always Larry Bird (not Tony Dorsett or Jose Canseco).

I bring up the issue of numbers, only because LeBron James is going back to the Cleveland Cavaliers and he recently announced he’ll begin wearing No. 23 again. On Monday, Michael Jordan, whose No. 23 is arguably the king of all jersey numbers, responded by texting ESPN.com: “I’m cool with it. I don’t own a number.”

Really? I coulda sworn he did.

Bless his heart for what he’s done this summer, LeBron has earned the right to wear his old number again, which he wore as a tribute to MJ anyway. Weirdly, back in 2009, LeBron tried to start a movement whereby all NBA players wearing No. 23 would switch to a different number to honor Jordan. The following year he moved to Miami and switched to No. 6, a number worn by none other than NBA legends Bill Russell and Dr. J.

I guess it just goes to show, numbers never lie. They always mean something to someone, especially when that someone is a true sports fan. You can add them up all you want but the bottom line is this: there’s just something about sports, figures ... and sports figures.

Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at jburton@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @StandardExJimbo

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