A few hours before the Clippers opened the season in mid-October against the Lakers at Staples Center, Doc Rivers addressed the media in the prerequisite interview. Many topics were discussed—from the overhauled roster to Blake Griffin and his new, fat five-year deal—but one of the most pressing was about the recent past intruding on the present.
Earlier that day, Chris Paul dropped a three-part documentary on ESPN. It was full of curious revelations (dude is somehow friends with Bob Iger, and Jay-Z evidently prefers to wash down peanuts with champagne), not the least of which centered on the now–Rockets point guard dragging his old team.
Among other complaints, Paul said he was “bored” when it came to playing basketball with the Clippers, and he was a bit bummed with them off the court, too, lamenting that in New Orleans “we did stuff together,” but in L.A., “guys would be like, ‘Do we got to go?’” When asked by Iger about “the biggest thing hurting the Clippers,” Paul needed only two words for his reply: “The culture.”
“When you leave,” Rivers said about those remarks, “I think you should just leave. Don’t try to burn the house down.”
The house is still standing (Rivers’s injury-plagued unit is just a half-game behind the Nuggets and Blazers for the final Western Conference playoff spot), and the current occupants will welcome Paul back to his old haunt when the Rockets play the Clippers in Los Angeles on Monday night at Staples Center. The Clippers plan to honor Paul with a tribute video. It should make for a nice moment. Documentary digs aside, Paul, Rivers, and the Clippers had some good years together. With some time and distance, both sides would do well to remember that.
The CP3 era was unquestionably the best stretch the Clippers ever had, and it has so far served as the most sustained success in Paul’s career, too. With Paul running the point, they won 50 or more games every season (with the exception of 2011-12, which was shortened by the lockout). Maybe they never made it past the conference semifinals, but they were among the top contenders in the West every season. By contrast, before Paul arrived, the Clippers made the playoffs just four times in nearly three decades in Los Angeles.
It doesn’t require much effort to make a case for Paul as the best player in franchise history. He is the organization’s all-time leader in assists, steals per game, PER, offensive rating, win shares, and box plus/minus. Only Randy Smith—a shooting guard and small forward who played parts of nine seasons for the organization going back to when they were known as the Buffalo Braves and San Diego Clippers—holds as many franchise records as Paul, including games, minutes, field goals attempted and made, total steals, and points.
You could imagine one day down the line, after his career is over, the Clippers holding a ceremony to retire Paul’s number. At present, no Clippers jerseys hang in the rafters at Staples Center because no player has ever had his number decommissioned by the franchise. Instead, for home games, the Clippers unfurl giant tapestries of current players.
If that particular thought experiment feels a bit premature, it is. After all, Paul is 32 and figures to play for a while. And in fairness to the Clippers, we aren’t currently wondering the same thing about Indiana’s future designs for Paul George—though, given how PG left, fans there probably feel more like burning his jersey at the moment than raising it to the rafters. For their part, the Clippers sent me this statement: “Chris Paul had six tremendous seasons here with the L.A. Clippers. We are grateful for his contributions to the organization and the city of Los Angeles.”
In further fairness to the Clippers, it’s tough to ask about any potential plans so far in advance of Paul retiring, and so soon after he left. And yet, if we step back from their separation and the residual hurt feelings, and instead take a big-picture look at their union, it was a fruitful and positive period for all of them. Paul, Rivers, and the recent-vintage Clippers managed to do something few of us would have thought possible even a decade ago: They made us take the organization seriously. Not only did they change the way we consider the Clippers on the court—rescuing a team that had been sequestered in the NBA’s basement for nearly its entire existence—but, along with new owner Steve Ballmer, they delivered the franchise from Donald Sterling’s dark and disgraceful tyranny. They didn’t just alter the old narrative, they ripped it up and wrote something entirely different. Something of their own.
That is an achievement worth noting. Retiring Paul’s jersey one day would carry a certain symbolism as a result. That, too, would be an achievement considering how these things go now. Lately, even when a player deserves to have his number taken out of circulation, the spectacle of the ensuing ceremony often makes us forget the impetus behind it in the first place.
Kobepalooza was a weird, wild, wonderful sideshow. To honor Kobe Bryant last month, the Lakers created “Kobeland,” a pop-up theme park at L.A. Live that featured Kobe-branded games like cornhole, pop-a-shot, a knock-off version of Plinko, and the opportunity to take pictures with something called “Kobe MVPuppets.” There was also a Ferris wheel.
At halftime of the game against the Warriors, the Lakers played a Kobe cartoon for the crowd, Magic Johnson called Kobe the greatest Laker ever, and then they hoisted Bryant’s no. 8 and no. 24 jerseys to the ceiling, making the Mamba the first player in league history to have two numbers retired by one team. The night couldn’t have been more over-the-top-Kobe if Kobe walked over to Nick Young, took the sneakers off his feet, and threw them in the trash.
Leaguewide, retirement ceremonies have always been a bit strange—the Sixers gave Allen Iverson an outboard motor fishing boat with “The Answer” stamped on the side—but they’ve recently become heated, too. The Celtics are set to retire Paul Pierce’s number next month. It sounds like it will be a nice night—unless you ask Paul Pierce.
That same evening, the Celtics scheduled a tribute video for Isaiah Thomas (he didn’t play in the most recent Cleveland-Boston game, and asked that his former team delay any video welcomings until he was healthy enough to play again on the Garden floor). The double-dip did not sit well with Pierce. “I’m not saying Isaiah shouldn’t get a tribute video ... but on February 11th, the night I get my jersey retired, I’m not sure I want to look up at the Jumbotron and see Isaiah highlights,” Pierce said on ESPN’s The Jump. Instead, Pierce suggested the Celtics should just put the tribute video out on Instagram.
Rather than walk back the sentiment, Pierce doubled down: “Isaiah will be back in Boston again—next year, the year after. He’s going to have a long career. But this one day should belong to Paul Pierce.”
He gets bonus points for being uncompromising while also talking in the third person, but his insistence that the night belongs to Pierce and Pierce alone over-inflates the historical importance, and rarity, of jersey ceremonies—especially in Boston, where they’ve had so many they’re about as exclusive as a beef and beer at the VFW in Southie. Pierce will mark the 22nd jersey the Celtics have retired, putting Boston’s current players in danger of being outfitted in symbols when they soon run out of digits.
It’s not that Pierce doesn’t deserve to have his number retired. He most certainly does. But the pomp and circumstance and, sometimes, absurdity of the ceremonies frequently make it all feel a bit much. Beyond that, and more importantly for our purposes, the very act of retiring a number lends itself to the attendant hot-take culture that permeates sports. If someone should have his jersey retired, and how that endeavor is undertaken, serves as more fuel for our always-in-operation debate machinery. Before a jersey ends up in the rafters, we first get to pull on the thread and unravel the argument behind it.
In Memphis, the Grizzlies have already announced they will one day retire Zach Randolph’s no. 50 and Tony Allen’s no. 9. Randolph plays for Sacramento and Allen is with New Orleans. If simply wondering whether the Clippers might eventually retire Paul’s no. 3 is odd considering he’s still playing, what does that make Memphis’s commitment to Z-Bo and Allen? But, hey, as one league executive explained to me, “Fans and players love these ceremonies.” Maybe, but not all of them. A player-turned-executive called them “the biggest waste of time on the planet” and said he could “definitely do without them.” He also said, “No way CP3 should have his jersey retired by the Clippers.” He was in a bit of a mood.
Regardless of what anyone thinks about the ceremonies, they’re not going to stop. Organizations have proved they’ll retire just about anything and everything if it means they can market a mini-halftime party and sell a few more tickets. The Hawks retired no. 59 in honor of mayor Kasim Reed, the 59th mayor of Atlanta, and sent former owner and TV magnate Ted Turner to the rafters (without a number). The Detroit Pistons also retired an owner, William Davidson.
It’s not unusual for teams to retire jerseys of people who never played for them, either. The Pelicans retired Pete Maravich’s number, even though the five-time All-Star played only for the then–New Orleans Jazz, not the current Hornets/Pelicans franchise. And the Orlando Magic retired no. 6 on behalf of their fans, which, as my buddy and fellow NBA enthusiast put it, makes them look like “they’re the fifth-best team in a second-tier college conference.”
Sometimes, teams will retire a number and then unretire it for a current player. The Suns did that with Alvan Adams’s 33 (which Grant Hill wore), and the Spurs did the same with Bruce Bowen’s 12 (now on the back of LaMarcus Aldridge). Meanwhile, other organizations have retired jerseys on behalf of long-time head coaches and then slapped some sort of symbolic number on the back. Former Pistons coach Chuck Daly had no. 2 retired in his name (for his two championships), and no one in Utah, sadly, will ever wear no. 1,233, thanks to Jerry Sloan’s win record.
But, for my money, the Heat are the all-time leaders in “wait, what?” jersey ceremonies. They retired Michael Jordan’s number despite the fact that he never played for the franchise. Even better: They decommissioned no. 13 for Dan Marino, who remains a Miami legend—for football and Nutrisystem. And because the Heat take these things super seriously, they continued the deep show of respect by lending out Marino’s retired number to Bam Adebayo. The rookie is averaging almost 20 minutes per game this season. Bully for him—and Marino.
If everyone and everything can have a jersey retired for any reason, it sort of funnels some of the fun and gravity out of the proceedings, and it leaves room for questions about who does and doesn’t deserve an honor that’s become increasingly common. When the Mavericks retired Derek Harper’s number this month, I asked all the Mavs fans I know if he deserved it. (I know precisely three.) One said “absolutely,” since Harper remains the franchise leader in assists and steals. Another said he’s “ambivalent on Harp” and number retirements in general. And the third, The Ringer’s very own Jason Gallagher, replied in a way that sums up the overall shoulder-shrug feeling associated with jersey ceremonies these days. “Eeeeeh,” Gallagher responded. Eventually, he added that he “leans yes.” It doesn’t get more special than that.