When Michael Jordan came out of retirement in 1995, he famously donned No. 45 rather than his trademark 23. But do you know about the time Air Jordan wore the No. 12?
The circumstances were unique in both cases. When Jordan wore No. 45, he had spent several months wearing the same number with the Birmingham Barons, a Double A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Upon returning to the NBA, Jordan sported the same digits he later described as his “favorite” in high school.
For most of his career, Jordan was synonymous with the No. 23. His accomplishments lent the number a sort of validation. The best player of the post-Jordan era, LeBron James, has rocked 23 for the majority of his career. After David Beckham wore No. 7 at English Premier League power Manchester United for years, he switched to No. 23 when he joined Spanish Club Real Madrid. One popular theory was that it was a nod to Jordan.
On one February night 25 years ago, however, Jordan’s trademark No. 23 jersey was the subject of a minor controversy.
The Bulls traveled to Orlando to face the Magic. Chicago was making the final stop of a six-game road swing that also included games in Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Denver and, one night before the matchup with the Magic, Miami. Chicago entered with a 29-19 record but had lost four of its last five games, while Orlando, at 14-33, had dropped three of four.
The Magic were in the midst of their first season, while Chicago was under the charge of a first-year coach, Phil Jackson. At this point in Jordan’s career, he had already won one Most Valuable Player award and earned five All-Star appearances, including during the 1989-90 campaign. That season, he led the league in scoring at 33.6 points per game while playing all 82 regular-season games.
But No. 23 did miss one game that season, although Jordan did not. On Valentine’s Day, MJ wore No. 12 instead of his iconic number. The sequence of events surrounding the jersey swap are not entirely clear, but a few details seem plausible in retrospect. Of the people familiar with the event who spoke to SI.com, there was an agreement on some basic points.
Jordan’s No. 23 jersey is believed to have been stolen on the day of the game. The Bulls did not bring a backup No. 23 jersey with them, but the team did have a just-in-case No. 12 kit bearing no name on the back. Sam Smith, who covered the game for the Chicago Tribune and now writes for Bulls.com, remembered a search in the crowd for a No. 23 jersey that would fit Jordan’s 6’6’’ frame.
The search reportedly turned up nothing and, according to the Orlando Sentinel, security interviewed Orlando Arena (now Amway Center) employees and tried to find the No. 23 jersey inside the building. With no success, the Bulls suited Jordan in the nameless No. 12 thread. The good news for Chicago is that the uniform switch didn’t really seem to affect Jordan’s play.
Over 47 minutes, Jordan scored 21 of his 43 shot attempts for a game-high 49 points. Chicago led by double digits in the third quarter, but the Magic – buoyed by 34 points from Terry Catledge, 16 off the bench from Scott Skiles and a then-franchise high 19 rebounds from Sidney Green – mounted a comeback to force overtime, where they pulled out a 135-129 win.
"The frustration comes from losing a game that we should have won," Jordan said afterward, according to the St. Petersburg Times. "I don't give a damn about the way that I played. We had our opportunities to win and we should have capitalized on them." Embedded below is video footage of the game, posted on the NBA’s official YouTube page in February 2013.
The clip includes an important message from the public address announcer in pre-game warm-ups. “Please note that, for the Bulls, Michael Jordan is wearing number 12 tonight.”
John Harris of the Times, who is now a columnist for the Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh, described the electric atmosphere for Magic home games during the franchise’s first season. In his story on Orlando’s win over the Bulls, Harris wrote that the “rollicking sellout crowd” made so much noise that Jackson “threatened to file a complaint with the league office.”
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Former Bulls teammate Stacey King said he remembers the jersey theft being a “big deal” and how Jordan was “very superstitious” about his jersey. After the game, Jordan spoke about having to wear a different number. “That has never happened to me before,'' Jordan said, according to the Sentinel. "It's pretty irritating because you're accustomed to certain things and you don't like to have things misplaced."
It is not known who stole the jersey, but a person familiar with the event indicated the No. 23 jersey was taken between shootaround the day of the game and tipoff, and that it was found a couple of days later in the ceiling tiles of the visiting locker room. A Bulls spokesperson said that he does not recall the team ever getting the jersey back.
Barring new information, the nature of the jersey’s disappearance ensures it will remain a mysterious footnote on the résumé of the greatest player in NBA history.