Ever since Lebron James was a high school basketball phenomenon he’s been synonymous with the number 23. For both his AAU sides and his high school St Vincent St Mary in Akron as a teenager he wore the iconic number 23 and the reason was simple and obvious. “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 in 2019. He was of course talking about the GOAT, Michael Jordan.
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Why did Lebron James wear jersey number 23 in high school?
Lebron was born on 30th December 1984, just 2 months after Jordan made his NBA debut. When Jordan lifted his first NBA MVP Lebron was 4 years old and starting to become aware of the NBA. When Jordan won his first NBA title in 1991, Lebron was 6 years old and when Jordan lifted his 6th and Final NBA title Lebron was 13 years old. Needless to say, Lebron James wanting to “be like Mike” was a perfectly normal thing, he chose 23 so he could feel like his idol. The difference between Lebron and every other kid wearing number 23 for their high school team? Well, it turns out that Lebron might have even been better than Mike.
What Jersey number did Lebron James wear in his NBA debut?
Lebron was one of the last big names to benefit from being able to go straight from High School to the NBA. Drafted in 2003 by his hometown team the Cleveland Cavaliers the 19 year old mega star had already had his high school games broadcast on ESPN. Immediately gaining starting status on a Cavs team coming off of a 17 win season, Lebron was immediately the team’s centerpiece and there was never a question of him continuing to wear the number 23 that had already become part of his brand.
On entering the NBA Lebron James did not miss a beat. Averaging almost 40 mins across 79 games, scoring 20 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds. It was clear, the hype was real and there was a new number 23 in the NBA striving for greatness.
What number did Lebron wear in Miami?
In the summer of 2010 Lebron James decided to explore his free agency. After 7 years in Cleveland that had yielded just one trip to the NBA Finals (a sweep at the hand of the San Antonio Spurs) the back to back NBA MVP decided to test the free agency waters and see where he might finally be able to win a title.
The announcement came in the form of the ill fated The Decision, an hour long ESPN special where Lebron announced live to the world that he was going to be “taking his talents to South Beach” and join his friend and fellow All-Star Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat.
Four trips to the NBA Finals in 4 years, yielding 2 titles and 2 more Regular Season MVP awards proved Lebron’s decision to be correct, the man who skipped College finally had a degree in winning. However, it came at a cost, in order to join the Miami Heat Lebron had to give up his iconic number 23 jersey.
Lebron James wore the number 6 Jersey with Miami in order to honor the great Bill Russell, 11 time Champion with the Boston Celtics. The reason why though, is murky and just like all things Lebron does on the Basketball Court, layered in misdirection.
This Bleacher Report article from November 2009 (9 Months and almost an entire NBA Season before The Decision and Lebron’s announcement to move to Miami) quotes Lebron as planning to change his Jersey number to 6 as a tribute to Michael Jordan.
Last week LeBron James publicly stated his intention to change his jersey number next season from “23” to “6” out of respect to Michael Jordan. He also went on to express his belief that no other NBA player should wear the number in recognition of Jordan’s accomplishments and influence on the league.
“I just think that what Michael Jordan has done for the game has to be recognized in some way soon,” James said. “There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn’t Michael Jordan first.”
Aside from the fact that James alternative number of choice was the number 6 jersey made iconic by Bill Russell, who won 11 titles in 12 NBA Seasons and arguably has a better claim to never have his number worn by another NBA player again, than even Michael Jordan, there is another massive motive why Lebron James may have planned to stop wearing 23 and start wearing 6 ahead of the 2010-11 NBA Season.
That’s right. His Free Agency. In November 2009, when he started the process of informing the world he would no longer be wearing his iconic tried and tested number 23 Jersey, he had probably already decided that he’d be headed to Miami to team up with Dwyane Wade on the Heat.
The issue was that in April 2003 the Heat retired the number 23 jersey in April 2003 to honor Jordan’s achievements and contributions in basketball. The Heat were the only NBA team other than the Chicago Bulls to retire the number 23 jersey in honor of Jordan when he retired from the Wizards. When the Heat hoisted the number 23 jersey into the rafters head of Jordan’s final ever game in Miami, Heat President Pat Riley said directly to Michael Jordan;
“No one will ever wear No.23 for the Miami Heat. You’re the best”
- Pat Riley April 11th 2003
So if Lebron was to join the Heat and they wouldn’t allow him to continue wearing number 23, it could be seen as a black mark on his status in relation to Jordan. By anticipating this and getting out ahead of it, Lebron was able to control the narrative from one of his new franchises respecting Jordan more than him, to something he could control.
Whether Lebron would have worn jersey number 6 or 23 had he stayed at the Cavs or joined another Franchise not named Bulls or Heat, is unclear, but what we do know is that he would wear number 23 again during his career.
Why did Lebron change back to 23 when he rejoined the Cavaliers?
When Lebron decided to return to Cleveland ahead of the 2014/15 NBA season he didn’t do a TV special, he didn’t hold a not 1, not 2, not 3… title celebration party. This was a more mature Lebron James, a multiple Champion. He wrote an essay alongside Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins titled “I’m coming back to Cleveland”.
It made no mention of Jersey numbers, that being 6 or 23. It spoke about Cleveland feeling like home and him wanting to come back and win a Championship that would mean something to the City. Its final words were “I’m coming home”.
On the 27th July 2014, three days after the SI article heralded his return Lebron dropped on his social media that he’d be returning to Cleveland and returning to his iconic number 23. (Jordan’s legacy be damned lol).
Lebron’s second stint in Cleveland and as number 23 saw him reach another 4 NBA Finals (8 in a row and nine in total) winning 1 title in 2016. Lebron played some of his best basketball, but came up against the ascending Golden State Warriors in each of those Finals. Splitting the first 2 and failing to make a dent once they signed Kevin Durant in 2016.
Lebron James fulfilled his promise and won the city of Cleveland a title, while wearing the iconic number 23 on his Jersey.
So, why did Lebron James change back to jersey number 23 when he returned to Cleveland? The Simple answer, he always wanted to be number 23, he just couldn’t while he was in Miami because it was retired in honor of Michael Jordan and not available for use.
Lebron’s 2016 title in Cleveland is not the end of his story, after falling to Durant, Curry and the Warriors in 2017 and 2018 Lebron set his laser focus on a new chapter. Heading out West and bringing the grandest, most glamorous franchise back from the abyss.
What number did Lebron wear for the Lakers?
Lebron James joined the LA Lakers for the 2018-19 season, he joined a young roster that wasn’t seen as ready to compete for a title. They performed well until an injury to Lebron derailed their season and the need for a consolidation trade to bring James an All-star running mate became clear.
The Pelicans have agreed to a deal to trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks – including the No. 4 overall in 2019 Draft, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 15, 2019
Lebron James had worn number 23 in his first season as a Laker, but during the post season following the Anthony Davis trade he posted on his social media that he would be vacating the number 23 Jersey so that Davis could continue wearing it. AD had worn 23 during his 7 seasons in New Orleans.
Yahoo Sources: Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James gifting new teammate Anthony Davis his No. 23 jersey for the upcoming season. https://t.co/vYIXmcl6c9— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 27, 2019
This move fueled speculation that Lebron who had always worn number 6 during Lakers practices would switch out and wear number 6 for the Lakers in NBA games as well ahead of the 2019-20 NBA season.
LeBron James famously wears No. 6 in practice regardless. #Lakers pic.twitter.com/ub9ToLhQiu— Ryan Ward (@RyanWardLA) June 27, 2019
However this never happened. While Lebron and AD had planned the Jersey number switch to accommodate Davis, Nike (James’ and Davis’ main sponsor) had a large supply of No. 23 James jerseys that would have become obsolete. The proposed switch did not give NIke enough notice before the 2019-20 season, so James was forced to stick with No.23. The number change request was made after the NBA deadline of March 15th, 2019 however it was clear that the NBA Office would have allowed it if Nike had not stepped in. Anthony Davis then chose to wear No. 3, that he last wore in elementary school.
Despite the rocky start and the Covid-19 pandemic doing its best to derail the globe Lebron wearing 23 and Davis wearing 3 came together in the Orlando Bubble and won the Lakers first title since 2010. Lebron would continue in the number 23 jersey the next season as they set out to defend their title in the 2020-21 season.
Did Lebron switch to number 6 because of Space Jam?
Heading into Lebrons 4th season with the Lakers, 2021-22, Lebron James finally made the long anticipated switch to number 6. His official reason was as below;
“It’s always been a part of me, to be honest, six has a lot of meaning to me, from my family and numbers and things of that nature to what I believe in and things of that sort, but my mentality doesn’t change. Going out, being an overall basketball player, trying to dominate at all facets of the game and being a great teammate, and being a great leader.”
- Lebron James on switching Lakers Jersey Number from 23 to 6 in 2022.
However, knowing how calculated and pre-emptive Lebron has been about the narrative around his number and his legacy vs Michael Jordan in the past, we have a different theory.
SPACE JAM 2
Lebron’s most on the nose imitation of his airness has got to be the Space Jam 2 movie. The Original starring Bugs Bunny and MJ was released in 1997 and featured MJ playing for the Toon squad wearing his iconic 23 jersey.
Now of course, there was no WAY that Lebron would be able to wear 23 for the Toon Squad in Space Jam 2. So in order to stay on brand he would need to appear in the movie wearing number 6. However, this would mean that he would need to change his Lakers playing jersey as well, because… you know… merchandise sales.
So the whole training in number 6 and the 2019 planned jersey switch for AD was most likely all a calculated Lebron James patented misdirect to set everyone up for him switching Jerseys to number 6 in order to line up with the release of Space Jam 2 in 2021.
AD has stayed as number 3 because he had already won a title and he wants his Lakers number 3 Jersey to become iconic and hang in the rafters in Los Angeles when he retires.
Bill Russell and the number 6 NBA Jersey
On 31st July 2022 ahead of the NBA season starting up the Basketball world was in mourning as news of Bill Russell’s passing spread around the community. The NBA decided to retire every team’s number 6 Jerseys in his honor. No new player would be allowed to wear it again, although players currently registered to wear it could continue if they chose to. Lebron is one of those still wearing the number 6, in part to honor the 11 time NBA Champion, Civil Rights activist and all round incredible human Bill Russell.
Table of Lebron James number changes
|Year (season started)||Team||Jersey Number|
|2002||St Vincent St Marys||23|