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While there have been plenty of iconic NBA players over the years, few can hold a candle to Michael Jordan. The New York City native dominated the game, both on and off the court, and became a global celebrity. There’s a reason why his iconic number 23 looms large over basketball culture.

With that being said, though, there were a handful of occasions when His Airness hit the hardwood wearing a different number on his back. Let’s take a walk down NBA memory lane and explore the history of Michael Jordan’s number.

Why did Michael Jordan wear number 23?

When you think about Michael Jordan’s number, it’s easy to imagine him being the origin point for the popularity of 23. As a child, though, even MJ had to look up to someone. That honor fell to Mike’s older brother, Larry.

As brothers tend to do, Michael competed at Larry in just about every arena possible, including the basketball court. When the elder Jordan played on his high school’s varsity team, he sported the number 45 on his back. When MJ followed in his footsteps, he took 23 because it was (almost) half of his brother’s number.

Little did anyone know that sentimental choice would change basketball as we know it.

How long did His Airness wear 23?

Michael Jordan during his time with the Washington Wizards.
Michael Jordan wore number 23 for most of his career. | Simon Bruty /Anychance/Getty Images

As you might expect from it being enshrined in popular culture, Michael Jordan rocked number 23 for the majority of his career. If we set aside high school for the sake of uniformity, we know he used the number at these points:

  • From the fall of 1981 through the spring of 1984 at the University of North Carolina
  • For the first stint of his NBA career with the Chicago Bulls (barring one game we’ll discuss shortly) from October 1986 through June 1993
  • For most of his second stint with the Bulls (again, we’ll get to the exception shortly) from May 1995 through June 1998
  • For his final comeback with the Washington Wizards from October 2001 through April 2002

Why did Michael Jordan’s number briefly change to 45?

As we’ve already discussed, 45 was Larry Jordan’s number. That alone helps explain why it held a special place in MJ’s heart. It doesn’t tell the full story, however, of why he wore it on the NBA floor.

During his brief foray into professional baseball, Jordan wore 45. When it came time to return to the Bulls, there was a problem: the organization had already retired 23.

Faced with that unusual situation — Is a number still retired if the original wearer wants to use it? — and the emotional challenge of playing basketball without his father watching him, Jordan kept wearing 45 in the Association.

After a few months, though, he switched back to 23 in an attempt to recapture the feeling of his previous basketball success. Since the Bulls pulled off another three-peat, it’s safe to say he did just that.

How long did Jordan spend wearing 45?

In total, not very long.

Jordan’s first game out of retirement took place on March 19, 1995. As documented by NBC Sports, he made the switch back to 23 after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. That contest took place on May 10, 1995, with His Airness wearing 45 for the final time on May 4.

Nick Anderson also shoulders some responsibility for changing the course of NBA number history. As we saw during The Last Dance, he quipped that “45 isn’t 23.” Jordan, who can famously take things personally, heard that and, citing the desire to feel natural on the court, made the switch.

Did Michael Jordan ever wear number 12?

Even the most casual NBA fans know that Michael Jordan wore 23. When you go a bit deeper down the rabbit hole, you’ll remember MJ wearing 45 for a few months. But what about 12?

That number is easy to overlook because Jordan only used it for one game. On Valentines Day 1990, His Airness wore a number 12 jersey without a name on the back for one game against the Magic.

While there’s some disagreement over exactly what happened, Chris Johnson laid out the story in a 2015 Sports Illustrated piece. Jordan’s 23 jersey was apparently stolen, and the Bulls didn’t have a backup ready at the end of a six-game road trip. Security couldn’t find the missing top, and no one in the crowd had a Jordan jersey capable of fitting the man himself, so Chicago broke out the emergency option: the blank 12 jersey.

If MJ was bothered by the change of wardrobe, it didn’t show. He potted 49 points as the Bulls secured a 135-129 overtime victory.

Is Michael Jordan’s number 23 retired?


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For an individual athlete, one of the highest honors is having your number retired. As you might expect, His Airness has seen his 23 jersey rise to the rafters on multiple occasions.

Understandably, the Chicago Bulls have retired Jordan’s number. The University of North Carolina men’s basketball team has both honored and retired 23. The Tar Heels have a higher standard for jersey retirement than for simply honoring the player, but MJ clears both bars with ease.

There is a third team that commemorated His Airness’ team in the Association: the Miami Heat. While Jordan never played in South Florida, the organization pulled 23 from rotation during the living legend’s final season with the Wizards as a tribute to his greatness.

When a team you have no affiliation with pays you that honor, you know you’ve made it. Michael Jordan certainly has.