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The meaning (and luck) behind the most famous jersey number in U.S. Olympic basketball history

Michael Jordan's best highlights from Barcelona
Fresh off his second NBA title, Michael Jordan led the Dream Team into Barcelona in the summer of 1992 and helped the greatest team of all time cruise to a gold medal.

When A’ja Wilson joined the senior national team in 2018, she also joined a legendary list of women and men to wear the most famous number in USA Basketball history.

“Number nine was just given to me through USA Basketball,” she said. “I didn’t really have a choice, and I was greatly appreciative because a lot of greats wear number nine when it comes to USAB.”

Over the last 10 Olympics, nine different Basketball Hall of Famers or very likely future Hall of Famers (like Wilson) wore nine for the U.S.

The run began at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. The biggest star on the men’s team and the women’s team each wore nine.

Michael Jordan was number 23 at North Carolina, but he could not have it for Team USA.

That’s because international rules at the time mandated players wear a number between four and 15 to make it easier for referees to communicate with hand signals to teams that often spoke different languages. FIBA dropped the rule in 2014, but USA Basketball still favors those numbers in part due to tradition.

Jordan wore five at the 1983 Pan American Games, where Villanova’s Ed Pinckney had nine. Pinckney did not make the 1984 Olympic team.

The reasoning for Jordan donning nine goes back to his teens. His first number was 45 at Laney High in Wilmington, North Carolina, before switching to 23 on the varsity.

“I wore the number nine in the Olympics because it was four and five added together,” Jordan wrote in his 1998 book “For the Love of the Game.”

Cheryl Miller wore 31 as a three-time NCAA Player of the Year at USC. She chose it in part because she spent 31 days in an intensive care unit after being born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

In 1984, Miller’s Trojans beat Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Volunteers in the NCAA Championship game, after which Miller did a cartwheel in front of Summitt. Summitt was also the 1984 Olympic head coach, and while she may not have enjoyed Miller’s celebration, she knew Miller had to be on her team.

“You’re already the best player in the country,” Miller remembered Summitt telling her before the Olympics. “I need you to be the best player in the world.”

Miller said she received nine by luck of the draw. She led the U.S. in scoring en route to gold. How did she find out that the U.S. men’s scoring leader also had it? Teammate Pam McGee.

“‘She’s like, oh you know, Jordan has the same number,’” Miller said, before quipping, “I was like, ‘Oh, he’s wearing my number? How cool is that?’”

A’ja Wilson’s church and community in Columbia, South Carolina, have pushed her to high achievements and inspired her to give back.

Lisa Leslie began playing for junior national teams as a high schooler. On her first trip abroad to Spain, she noticed a similarity among stars on international rosters.

“I chose number nine because I saw other players that were the best player on the team (wearing nine),” she said. “That’s what I wanted to be.”

Leslie not only wore nine at the Olympics from 1996-2008 — becoming the most prolific scorer in U.S. history — but also throughout her Los Angeles Sparks career.

While Leslie had a 15-year reign with the number, the men’s team had Hall of Famers cycle through nine.

Jordan stepped aside after the 1992 Olympics to let others get a chance at a gold medal. That freed up number nine.

It went to Mitch Richmond in 1996, Vince Carter in 2000, LeBron James in 2004 and Dwyane Wade in 2008.

But Carter didn’t originally make the Sydney Olympic team. He got in after Tom Gugliotta withdrew due to knee surgery. Gugliotta wore nine at the 1999 FIBA Americas Championship and was planning to keep it for the Sydney Games.

“Not sure what options I had for a number but being a youth soccer player #9 was a great number,” Gugliotta wrote in an email. “Giorgio Chinaglia wore it and he was a favorite of mine. As a kid growing up in NY, I went to a Cosmos game.”

Carter was assigned number nine.

“I wanted to wear 15 lol,” he wrote in an email, noting his Toronto Raptors number.

But Grant Hill already had that number. Hill later gave up his Olympic spot due to an ankle injury. Fifteen went to his replacement, Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

So Carter wore nine for the most viewed Olympic highlight in history — a dunk over French 7-footer Frederic Weis.

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Paul Pierce was nine at the 2002 World Championship, but he did not make the 2004 Olympic team. The number went to James, who at the time was a 19-year-old coming off his rookie season and the youngest U.S. Olympic basketball player in 28 years.

Attempts to ask James if he had any say over his 2004 Olympic number were unsuccessful. James did wear 23 in high school and in the NBA because Jordan wore it.

One player who did seek nine because of Jordan was James’ friend Dwyane Wade, who was given six for the 2004 Olympics.

After those Games, James and Wade traded numbers.

“I’m looking at him like, ‘Bro, I really want number nine,’” Wade said. “And he’s like, ‘Perfect, ‘cause I really want number six.’ And so it was an easy swap.”

Wade led the 2008 Redeem Team in scoring.

James later wore six for the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers.

He said that he liked the number in part because of its relation to 23 — two times three equals six. Plus, his first son, Bronny, was born on the sixth of October, and his second son, Bryce, was born in June, the sixth month of the year.

After Wade, the Olympic number nine went to Andre Iguodala (2012), DeMar DeRozan (2016) and Jerami Grant (2021). DeRozan and Grant didn’t request the number but were glad to wear it.

After Leslie retired, Asjha Jones said she was given nine for her one Olympics in 2012.

For 2016, the number went to the youngest player — 21-year-old Breanna Stewart. She preferred 10, her junior national team number, but it already belonged to Tamika Catchings.

Catchings retired after those Rio Games. Stewart was asked if she wanted 10. She took it, and nine went to a newcomer — fellow future WNBA MVP Wilson.

Wilson, the U.S. scoring leader in Tokyo, is one of the favorites to make the team this year, so expect her to wear it in France.

As for the men, the incumbent Olympic number nine Grant is not in the 41-player pool from which the 12-player team for Paris is expected to be chosen. Bobby Portis, who wore nine at last year’s World Cup, is in the pool.

If neither makes it, nine could go to Jaylen Brown, a 2023 All-NBA Second Team player who wore it at the 2019 World Cup.

The men’s Olympic final is Aug. 10 — 40 years to the day after Jordan led the U.S. to victory in the gold-medal game in Los Angeles, where the Hall of Fame journey of nine began.

“It adds more now to the Olympic gold medal,” said Miller, who has one of her 1984 jerseys in her living room. “There’s a mystique about the number nine.”

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