Why the Celtics should end traditional number retirement
The Boston Celtics have retired a total of 21 jersey numbers, more than any other NBA team.
Countless players have donned the Celtic green and earned a great deal of respect doing so. A select number have embodied all the elements fans want to see from a Boston Celtic--unwavering loyalty, hard-nosed grit, awesome passion, and more--thus warranting great reverence and special honor in Celtics lore. There are many appropriate ways to pay tribute to these distinguished legends, but retiring jersey numbers isn't one of them.
Bluntly, traditional number retirement is foolish. It simply isn't a self-sustaining practice. There are a finite amount of possible numbers to choose from, and the future inability to retire numbers is inevitable.
NBA teams must carry a minimum of 13 players on a roster, and on a blank slate there are a total of 101 numbers (00-99). The Celtics have retired 21 (and we can reasonably suspect that Garnett and Pierce will soon make it 23) numbers since their founding in 1946. Considering this pace, players may be limited to numbers 40-99 in just 69 years. Do you really want to start seeing a Celtics team increasingly sporting the numbers of football linemen?
We're already starting to see the effects of Boston's retired numbers in some capacity. Take a look at some of the recent number selections of newly added Celtics, via Basketball-Reference:
Notice how these six different numbers are almost always in use. Clearly, lower numbers are traditionally preferred, but there are so few available for the Celtics anymore. Most of them are retired (see main picture), and most of the remaining ones (see the above six numbers) are immediately taken when available. The lack of available numbers means some Celtics are left with rather aesthetically unpleasing options:
No. 70 Luigi Datome
No. 36 Marcus Smart
No. 52 Chris Babb (2014)
No. 38 Vitor Faverani (2014)
No. 27 Jordan Crawford (2013-2014)
No. 51 Keyon Dooling (2012)
No. 56 Sean Williams (2012)
No. 86 Chris Johnson (2011)
No. 86 Semih Erden (2011)
No. 77 Sasha Pavlovic (2011)
No. 93 P.J. Brown (2008)
No. 66 Scott Pollard (2008)
A question worth pondering--is it possible the lack of number availability could deter free agents from coming to Boston? On one hand, it sounds totally ludicrous. On the other, NBA players are becoming increasingly concerned with their marketability, and a football number on a player (especially a key contributor) just looks absurd. Some players are ridiculously superstitious, which may play a factor in perceived number importance. Certainly, for a lot of players, jersey number carries at least some significance. I greatly doubt (and hope not naively) that number availability is not deterring free agents now. Still, as numbers continue to be retired and players are limited to choices in the sixties and seventies, I could see selection becoming more of a factor.
I'm not saying we shouldn't honor players. I'm also not saying we should completely "unretire" numbers, although that has been done in sports before (Marlins, Wolverines). I am saying that there are better ways to do it. One such way would be to retire the name and number together, so instead of just seeing "33" in the rafters, you would see "Bird" with it. This recognition wouldn't be any less honorable. The player's identity to the team is still distinguished for his remarkable impact, and the number itself remains available to others.
Celtic great Jim Loscutoff was well aware of the absurdity of retiring jersey numbers. The Celtics sought to honor Loscutoff (a seven time NBA world champion) for his tremendous contribution to the team. Loscutoff asked that his no. 18 jersey not be retired however (though it was later retired for Cowens), asking that it remain open so a future Celtic could wear it. Obeying his wishes, the Celtics instead honored Loscutoff with an awesome banner that reads "LOSCY," his nickname.
Number retirement will probably never be a hot-topic issue, and it's not such an urgent one either. Still, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be given attention. It's ultimately a self-defeating practice, and now is as good a time as any to consider alternatives.