Thursday, July 06, 2006

Retired Numbers Ain't What They Used To be

It used to mean something, and I would submit to you that it has lost some of its luster. It hasn't lost all of it, but it has lost some. And now some would say that it isn't all that a big deal, so what's the harm in doing it over and over?

"It" is retiring uniform numbers, that franchise practice of so much honoring a former player that it's deemed mandated that no future performer shall ever wear the same number, so as not to desecrate the memory of the old one. So when #19 is raised to the rafters at Joe Louis Arena, it'll have Steve Yzerman's name above it, reminding us that it's not Randy Ladouceur or Danny Bolduc that we're festooning.

The body that is Ben Wallace's Detroit-playing cadaver isn't cold yet, and already the question is being raised: Should the Pistons retire Big Ben's #3?

It was a suggestion advanced yesterday by Mike Stone of WDFN. But you know sports talk radio -- always gotta find SOMETHING to talk about.

Stoney is a relatively wise sort. He's been around these parts for about 20 years, transplanted from his hometown of Philadelphia. So he's not some newcomer, some Johnny-come-lately who would tell us how to run our business, like so many other loudmouths employed by Stone's radio station have done in the past.

But Stoney, in a fit of boosterism for the just-departed, used his pulpit to alert us that a #3 retirement should be imminent for the Pistons.

"I'm not saying you do it now," Stone said. "But they retired Vinnie Johnson's number, and he wasn't even a starter!"

It was soon pointed out by a caller that Vinnie played 13 seasons in Detroit and won two titles. Wallace was in Detroit for six seasons, a one-time NBA champ.

That didn't deter Stone. Number 3 was as good as unavailable in his book.

"I just think for all he did, that he should be up there. And Dennis Rodman, too."

Rodman, Ben Wallace before there was Ben Wallace, played seven seasons in Detroit, before he requested a trade. He won some Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and two league championhips. He was as key to the Pistons' postseason success as anyone. Without his offensive rebounding, and relentless defense, you can forget about any championships.

So there is no disagreement with Mike Stone about retiring Rodman's #10, though part of me still wonders, When is enough enough? Rather, my beef with Stoney is with the notion of taking Wallace's #3 out of circulation.

"It's not like the Hall of Fame," Stoney said into his bully microphone. "It's just a number."

Whoa. Hold it right there.

A select group of retired jersey numbers IS its team's Hall of Fame. Each time a number is retired, its wearer is, in essence, inducted into a cherished fraternity.

So yes, Stoney -- it IS like the Hall of Fame. And Halls of Fame are supposed to be for the great, not the very good.

I have a problem with the Wallace number retiring, because where will it end? If you retire #3, then don't you have to set #32 out to pasture? #1? #30? #22?

Those are the numbers of the remaining Pistons starters. Each of them, it could be argued, were equal in value to a championship-winning club. So, using that theory, don't they all deserve to have their numbers retired?

Number retiring USED to be a big to-do. A player had to be the Al Kaline of his team to warrant such an honor from his former club.

Not anymore.

I look at stadiums and arenas all over the country, and their walls and balcony facings and rafters are full of the ubiquitous retired numbers. Some are no-brainers: Killebrew and Oliva in Minnesota. Rick Barry in San Francisco. Orr in Boston.

Others are not so obvious.

I see numbers that are surely retired for names out of deference, or even politeness, rather than for any sustained greatness on the field of play. And that's OK. Everyone has my permission. But the aura of a retired number isn't so much anymore. How can it be, when it's happening at the speed of light?

The Tigers have kept it properly limited when it has come to retired numbers. So have the Lions. The Red Wings have done OK. But the Pistons would probably have hiked strength and conditioning coach Arnie Kander's number to the Palace's rafters, had he worn one. Again, that's OK. Just a tad diluting.

You can honor Ben, if you'd like. Simply go to the Palace the first time his Bulls invade, and cheer as loudly and as longly as you can for him. Just know you'll be in the minority, of course.

But at the same time, don't give #3 to Nazr Mohammed. Not yet, anyway.


Big Al said...

Well said. The Pistons do most things right, but when it comes to retiring numbers... I'm waiting for Steve Mengelt night, myself.

Ian C. said...

Maybe I'm just a bit sore, but the concept of the Pistons retiring Ben Wallace's number sounds LUDICROUS to me.

Let's see how this guy handles himself for the rest of his career first. Will he still be interested in being a part of the Detroit community? Will we see him around here in the offseason? To me, that plays as much of a factor in the decision to retire his number as anything he's done on the court.

Greg Eno said...

Good point, Sluggo -- er, Ian.