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Dwight Howard and Rooting for Laundry

Photo by hexocular on Flickr

Photo by hexocular on Flickr

Dwight Howard’s reign as the NBA’s resident Michael Scott (apologies to the Mike Scott who plays for the Atlanta Hawks currently) does not appear to be in jeopardy. On Wednesday he told the Orlando Sentinel about his displeasure with the Orlando Magic’s decision to let Tobias Harris wear the number 12 — Dwight’s number.

“I just think that despite whatever happened, there was a lot of things that I did and that we did as a team, and that number was special down there,” he said. “And I was a little bit upset about that.”

And why did Harris want to wear the number 12? As a tribute to a close friend who died from leukemia as a teenager. It’s more than likely that Howard had no idea about this fact when he decided to pipe up on it, but that doesn’t make it any less Dwight.

Let’s wrap it all up with a nice bow, shall we? In addressing his departure from Orlando, including the way he put his foot in his mouth many, many times over a torturous year that included trade demands being made and rescinded and head coach Stan Van Gundy’s firing, he said, “I’m more mature now. I know how to handle situations different than I did back then.”

But let’s just roll our eyes at Howard and move on because what this sparked that’s actually interesting is a discussion about the idea of retiring jerseys and what it means. Howard feels he deserves to have his jersey retired by the Orlando Magic at some point — and clearly maybe even RIGHT NOW based on his disappointment with Harris getting his number — based on his eight-year career there.

It seems simple enough to add it up. In his third season, the Magic went to the playoffs and lost in the first round. The next year, they got to the Semifinals. Then the Finals, then the Conference Finals. After two first round exits that bothered Howard, he forced his way out, but he was also a six-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and finished second in MVP voting in 2011 behind LeBron James.

These are all good things. They are all impressive, tangible accomplishments, even if they don’t include a championship. They are all things that fit quite well on the resume of a Hall-of-Fame center. Howard’s quote makes it clear that he feels those good things should outweigh whatever negative associations became attached to him as he clumsily stumbled his way to Los Angeles.

But looking down the list of retired numbers in the NBA makes it clear that jersey retirement isn’t about anything as simple as plaudits and rewards. It may in fact be one of the last pure bastions of unalloyed narrative in a league that is becoming evermore efficient and statistically minded.

In one of the enduringly weird decisions in the NBA, the Miami Heat retired Michael Jordan’s #23 jersey in 2002-03 before Jordan’s final game against the Heat. You can almost picture Miami looking at the rest of the league and saying, “But I thought … Weren’t we all … right, so.” Jordan was honored, according to Pat Riley, for “your greatness and for all you’ve done for the game of basketball.” If it had to do with his Finals victories and MVP trophies, it was for what those things meant to basketball as a whole, what they meant to any fan of the game who saw him play.

Pete Maravich’s #7 has been retired by the New Orleans Pelicans, who used to be the New Orleans Hornets who used to be the Charlotte Hornets who didn’t exist when Maravich played. But Maravich played for the New Orleans Jazz who became the Utah Jazz (who also retired his number), and so the retirement of his jersey by New Orleans speaks to his attachment not to the franchise itself but to basketball in a particular place. At no time during Maravich’s tenure with the Jazz did they even make the playoffs, but his indelible style and artistry with the basketball as both a scorer and passer (as well as his time at LSU) was something that made New Orleans basketball want to claim him for itself.

When it comes to Jason Kidd’s newly retired #5 for the New Jersey Nets, that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with him being the new head coach for the Brooklyn Nets, right? Somehow I doubt they’d have gone to the trouble of raising his jersey to the rafters this year if he had gone on to coach the New York Knicks.

Time and again, for every jersey retired for obvious rings-related reasons like Jordan and Scottie Pippen’s in Chicago or Magic Johnson’s in Los Angeles or Bill Russell’s in Boston, there are others that are as steeped in myth or story as wins and losses. Bill Walton’s number is retired in Portland, where he won a magical championship after injuries limited him to just 86 games in his first two seasons. When health problems once again sidelined him in his fourth season, he demanded to be traded, was refused, then sat out the next season in protest. It’s hard to tell if adding all that up somehow presents a better or worse case than Howard’s with Orlando, but that’s exactly the point: this isn’t about adding everything up, but about the fabric of basketball for a team or a city, and no one would question Walton’s importance to Rip City hoops.

The stories extend to the tragic as well. Malik Sealy played in Minnesota for just two years, and that was after he had bounced around from the Pacers to the Clippers to the Pistons. His numbers were basically average. But when he was killed by a drunk driver on the way home from Kevin Garnett’s 24th birthday party, it only seemed right that the Wolves would pay tribute to his memory by retiring his jersey. His basketball contributions to the team were not Finals appearances nor All-Star nods, but mostly a banked buzzer beater against the Indiana Pacers. It was enough.

Or consider Reggie Lewis’ #35 jersey, which hangs in the rafters of the TD Garden in Boston. His six-year career netted one All-Star appearance and he’s one of only two Celtics (Ed Macauley being the other) to have his jersey retired without winning a championship with the team. But the shadow that Lewis’ death cast over the Celtics for much of the ‘90s was a significant enough part of the franchise’s story that it was only fitting to memorialize his all-too-brief career.

And that’s the crux of the whole jersey retirement thing: More than the Hall of Fame, which seeks to enshrine the best of the best, which bows to certain benchmarks of points scored or All-Star appearances when it comes to NBA players, the question of which jerseys deserve retirement has more to do with the story a franchise sees itself as part of. In a franchise whose retired numbers are dominated by champs with multiple rings, Lewis’ retired jersey speaks to the team’s darker days. Kidd’s retired jersey points the way forward to what the Nets hope to build with him as the head coach.

For all their emphasis on retiring numbers, hanging jerseys in the rafters has never been only about statistics or even rings. Is Howard right now an obviously better player than Sealy or even Maravich? Probably so. But ultimately it’s up to Orlando — not Howard — to decide whether Howard’s tenure with the Magic, with all its assorted and often sordid ups and downs, is something they want to stitch into the fabric of Magic basketball for all time.

Steve McPherson

Steve McPherson is an editor for Hardwood Paroxysm and his writing has appeared at Grantland, The Classical, A Wolf Among Wolves, TrueHoop, Complex, Narratively, Polygon and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @steventurous.