Every great player in NBA history eventually becomes synonymous with their jersey number. Jersey sales can tell you a lot about the popularity of certain stars, but they alone can’t be used to calculate which player is “most famous” of all time.
A few legends stand out among the crowd. Each has a strong case to be known as more famous than the others.
5. NBA jersey Nos. 8 and 24
Okay, we’re sort of cheating with this number, but given the circumstances, it feels appropriate. The January 26 death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash has dominated the minds of every basketball fan.
People admired Bryant for his legendary work ethic and astounding on-court displays. He’s one of the few NBA players to have two numbers retired in his honor. And Lakers fans often debate which version of Bryant was their favorite.
Black Mamba wore No. 8 for the first 10 years of his career, winning three championships and two scoring titles along the way. He switched to No. 24 in 2006 and led the Lakers to two titles, earning Finals MVP both times. Bryant’s desire to transform himself through practice typified his career. It’s only right that his numbers make it on to this list.
4. NBA jersey No. 32
You could argue that No. 32 should be higher on this list considering Magic Johnson. The greatest point guard of all time is so beloved by fans that no one even held it against him when he quit his job running the Lakers by calling a press conference before he told the team owner.
But most of the great players to wear this number are not quite as visible nowadays. Bill Walton led the Portland Trail Blazers to their one and only championship, but injuries curtailed his career far too soon. Karl Malone was a historically great power forward, but he spent the majority of his career in the small market of Utah, and he never won a title.
The only modern star to wear the number is Blake Griffin. He accomplished the impossible by making the Clippers cool. However, his notoriety doesn’t match up with the other players higher on this list.
3. NBA jersey No. 33
No. 33 has an absurd level of stardom associated with it. The most famous player with this number depends on where you grew up. Mostly played for the Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the NBA with his patented “skyhook” move during the ’70s and ’80s.
In Boston, Larry Bird is king. He’s the best Celtic ever and far from the only great player from the franchise. Scottie Pippen was Michael Jordan’s main accomplice as the Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA for a decade. One of the Bulls’ main competitors was the Knicks, led by another No. 33, Patrick Ewing. Concerning pure talent, the No. 33 is the strongest in basketball.
2. NBA jersey No. 34
The big man’s number is 34. Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Charles Barkley are three of the best bigs ever. Many audiences know O’Neal and Barkley, in particular, due to their work on Inside the NBA. Olajuwon’s name still comes up every summer when some star player travels to Houston to get advice about how to play in the post.
A couple of starring wing players also wore No. 34. Paul Pierce is one of the most iconic Celtics ever and now does TV work for ESPN. Ray Allen wore the number while he played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Seattle SuperSonics. Now he’s more known for his time in Boston and Miami when he wore the No. 20.
1. NBA jersey No. 23
Let’s not overthink this. The most famous jersey number in basketball belongs to the two best players in NBA history.
Everything about the modern NBA is made, to some extent, in Michael Jordan’s image. He destroyed the idea that a team needed a great big man to win a title, regularly wowing audiences. MJ also helped bring basketball to the rest of the world through his time on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.”
Off the court, his marketing strategy with Nike was so well done that his shoes are still highly sought after nearly two decades after his second retirement.
The highest compliment you can say about LeBron James is that he’s the one player who’s created his own legacy while wearing the same number as Jordan. (He wore the No. 6 in Miami because the Heat retired Jordan’s number even though he never played for them.)
James is an unprecedented athlete. He can score from everywhere on the floor, make passes only a select few can see and, at his peak, defend all five positions. But James is also, to use his slogan, more than an athlete. He showed other players how much power they could wield over a franchise, and he’s used his platform to discuss civil injustices in America.
No two players have had a greater impact on the NBA than Jordan and James, and they both wore No. 23 for most of their careers.