They are the symbol of a franchise. The past stuffed into a single number. The history crammed into the rafters of an arena.
Banners of retired jersey numbers act as bodiless tombstones hung high above the present bundle of front office staff, coaches and players. They wave in the cross-hairs of high altitutude to represent the past keeping an eye on the present. They're making sure that no one forgets.
On Friday, the Indiana Pacers added another name and banner to the rafters of the Fieldhouse. The man who, along with his brother Herb, helped save the franchise from relocation was honored with his own banner. Now, Mel Simon's marker keeps watch over the blue and gold along with Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, Georgie McGinnis, Reggie Miller and coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard. The pantheon of Pacers pride.
But should the Pacers reserve the Jersey Legends just for the Mount Rushmore of Pacers royalty, or is it time to begin opening the door for a grander overview of the franchise, thus allowing a new society of notoriety and knighthood to grow? The reason it popped into my mind was because of that big, awkward-looking 7-foot-4 dude sitting courtside during Friday's game. I think he's a famous BMX rider.
The decision to either put Rik Smits' name in lights or keep him off guest list is near the borderline for how the Pacers handle jersey ceremonies in the future. When we look up at the rafters 15 years from now, will Smits, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson and others be added to the list, or will it be just Danny Granger (fingers crossed) as the only one joining the hallowed ranks? The rest of the NBA doesn't offer a clear choice...
Each NBA team has its own way of honoring those who have served the team.
Some teams honor only the best. The Lakers have seven franchise players who changed the course of team history during the 60's, 70's and 80's. Compared to the Celtics, the Lakers have one of the stingiest and exclusive banner hanging clubs around. The Celts, the only team that can aptly be considered more successful than the Lakers in NBA history, have 23 numbers and more swaying in their home.
Some teams honor fallen heroes (Timberwolves - Malik Sealy, Hornets - Bobby Phillis), while other teams honor other team's heroes (Heat - Michael Jordan and Dan Marino). Some teams honor franchise stalwarts (Jazz - Mark Eaton), while other teams honor even just the minimal time spent with greatness (Nets - Julius Erving, Suns - Charles Barkley).
There is no blueprint. Each team does it differently. But if you compare teams based on retired jerseys for players who played the majority of their careers from 1980-present, the Pacers rank near the bottom of the league. With only one player from 80's and 90's generation (Uncle Reg), Indiana is right on par with a team like the Knicks, which also has only honored one member from those big time 90's squads (Patrick Ewing). Other teams that had successful runs in the 80's and 90's have been much more lenient in their presentations.
The Suns lead the pack with seven members added in the modern era. The Celtics and Jazz have added six each, and most of the other squads pack three or more additions of players who played in the 80's and beyond. The Pacers are in the "one and done" club with the Knicks, Timberwolves and Hornets.
So there's the spectrum. I can see the benefits of both sides. Keep the list low and reserved for the toppermost of the poppermost and you've distinguished your Roll of Fame for the very best that ever was that wore your jersey. The exclusivity keeps you from becoming like the Jazz, which even considered raising a banner for Lewis Scott from Celtic Pride.
But opening the door to more players who allowed this franchise to stay in Indiana, rise to the top of the NBA ranks for nearly two full decades and also to build one of the best arenas in the league could use a little lovin' too. Hey, and maybe you boost Rik Smits retro jersey sales while you're at it. Everybody wins.
Whichever side of the fence you reside on, here's an opportunity to rank which other players would go first in the jersey line, and where you would draw the line on who makes the cut. I guess I'd go with Smits and Jackson as the next batch of people. If you were running the Pacers, how would you handle the jersey conundrum?