This is a pre-emptive warning to my alma mater: Don't you ever fucking put No. 44 on any men's basketball player, for any reason, ever. I'm saying this because I know the thought will cross your mind and some point in the future, but I am ordering you: Do not fucking do this.
This is an issue because Michigan is a big-time athletics program and last night Michigan dragged out No. 98, which it retired for a Heisman Trophy winner from more than 70 years ago. In any collegiate setting, the urge is to mimic prestige. It's why Duke built everything on campus with quick-weather stone and Georgia pretends it is the first state university. It's why South Carolina fans, whose last conference championship was in the ACC, chant S-E-C.
So at some point, someone over at N.C. State is going to get the idea to put David Thompson's 44 on the back of an active men's basketball player, and then I'm going to drive to Raleigh, find everyone in the chain of command responsible for that, and start punching dicks like I'm Chris Paul.
I realize it is just as silly for me to get worked up over the concept of a retired number as it is for a university to unretire a couple of digits for some bread-and-circus showcase at the beginning of the season. But words and actions should have meaning, and the decision to retire a jersey is kind of, you know, an ultimate thing. It's a hall-of-fame class honor. It means the person who wore it is so beloved, his or her deeds so special, and the number is so identified with those contributions that, from now on, if you ever hear someone introduced by that number, you will be in the company of greatness.
Returning a number to service isn't returning the player to the field; it's kicking him out of a club of, one assumes, athletes who made the greatest contribution to the university's life in their time there. While professional teams do their own stupid shit regarding retired numbers, it matters more in college because theoretically, all they're playing for is a legacy. And yes, as an alumnus, I'm entitled to give a damn about my university's history, thank you very much. I have no standing to lecture Michigan on its practices; but big-time teams do set trends. (Look at Maryland's awful stripper costumes as the Oregon of the East.) If this kind of thing ever happens at N.C. State, for any reason, then I'm gonna go apeshit.
No, I don't really care if the honoree, if living, or his family if he's dead have no problem with it. Mark Harmon said as much last night. Of course he did. What's he going to do, be a dick about it to his old man's university? It's an extraordinarily coercive thing to suggest that number should come out of retirement for a day, the rest of the season, or as long as a player wants to wear it. It may sound ridiculous to pretend to own a number, but the university itself said you do, seventy goddamn years ago. It's a cop-out that, because someone doesn't wish to be twice as tacky as you are, everything is OK now. (Although, if I were Frank Tripucka, I would have pitched a goddamn fit. "If Peyton Manning wants to wear No. 18, he can wear it on those godawful Taco Bell uniforms for the rest of his career, too."
Nor are the players themselves responsible in any way. It's fine to argue that Devin Gardner may end up cheapening his own legacy by dressing up in Harmon's number, but what do you expect him to do or say after the university makes the option available? It's distinctive, it's intended as an honor, it puts him in the spotlight. Shit, even if 98 wasn't retired, I'd wear it. I love crazy numbers at weird positions in college football. It's like a receiver who kicks field goals.
The blame for all of this goes back to the promotions directors and administrators who cook up the idea in the first place. Michigan wanted to pull out all the stops for its final game with Notre Dame, as if that contest wouldn't be meaningful enough on its own. (Though, you might be surprised to learn that Tom Harmon himself never played against Notre Dame, as this series really did not become an annual rivalry until 1978.) And I guarantee that once Michigan does it, Ohio State will follow, or Texas, and then everyone will try it because that's what a big-time program does now. That's real good thinking there. That's Randy Edsall-level thinking there.
When I was at State (when I was at State ...) we didn't have a lot of reason to look down on North Carolina. Still don't. But we absolutely gave them shit when their basketball team came up with that stupid dumb "honored number" bullshit, which was technically a number retirement but you could still see it in service—sometimes on those idiots at the end of the bench whose only job is to stand with both arms raised when someone hoists a three. This wasn't cooked up out of necessity. It's not like that program had some shortage of great players to hang in the rafters, and needed to throw some second-rate players up there to make the fans feel good. It's not as if basketball has a 99-man roster making retired numerals prohibitively rare. (Fuck, UNC retired letters for a player that didn't have a number, just like the dumbass Giants did for John McGraw and Christy Mathewson.)
We could laugh at this because, 20 years ago at State, we had one retired number in men's basketball. Just one. David Thompson's. Not anyone from the 1983 team, not Ron Shavlik, not Chris Corchiani nor Tommy Gugliotta, no one but The One. Our standard at State? If you're the greatest player in the history of the league, we'll think about it.
And then we went and did the same fucking thing as UNC, like we always do.
We now have 21 "honored jerseys," which is just have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too hypocrisy. (The Tar Heels, though? Forty-seven.) And I guarantee you once North Carolina, the Michigan of the ACC (in institutional self-regard) hauls out Choo Choo Justice like it always does (did you know some fucking big band you've never heard of recorded a song about him?) we will follow suit with Dick Christy or Roman Gabriel. And then it'll creep into basketball.
This is why it matters so much to me: Twenty years ago, my junior year at N.C. State, the basketball team held a fund-raiser for Brian D'Amico, a player for the 1987 ACC champion Wolfpack (yes, I know that's our last title) who had been paralyzed in a car accident and required a van with a specialized wheelchair lift to be driven around town. The athletics department invited back anyone and everyone who had ever played for a benefit game, whose star power would sell a bunch of tickets and the proceeds would go to D'Amico.
Well, of course the first question was "Is Skywalker gonna play?" Substance abuse played a role in the end of David Thompson's pro career, but only proximately; the real end came when he tore up his knee getting thrown out of Studio 54. Everyone knew he had bad knees and figured that would keep him away. Then The News & Observer sports page ran a three-column vertical shot of Thompson dunking at a shootaround the day before, and it was on. The game was scheduled for Aug. 31, 1993 in Reynolds Coliseum. Unairconditioned, hot as hell Reynolds wasn't going to sell out on a weeknight at the end of August for anyone, but I'm convinced that picture alone sold most of the 7,000 or so seats that were filled.
I went to cover it for the student newspaper and was present for the greatest and most unique sports moment I'll ever witness. On my deathbed I will remember this and then I will smile and pass away. Everyone was introduced, and there must have been about 40 guys there. Clyde Austin was there. Big Tom Burleson came down from Newland to be there. Lorenzo Freaking Charles was there. The sideline was jammed full for the pre-game introductions, so we couldn't see if Thompson was among the crowd, sitting on the bench, while everyone's name, number and playing history was called out. (Donnie Seale: "A professional free agent ...")
Of course they were saving Thompson for last. "A six-four forward from Shelby Crest High School," said the P.A. (it wasn't C.A. Dillon it was some other guy), and a bolt of energy shot through the crowd. The sideline parted to reveal Thompson, in a warmup suit, sitting on the bench. We came to our feet as everything was read out.
"A three-time varsity letter winner ... (great opening) three-time first-team all-ACC selection ... three-time ACC Player of the Year ... three-time consensus first-team All-American ...
Light applause throughout, but not loud enough to overwhelm the P.A.
"Member of the undefeated 1973 ACC championship team, and the 1974 national championship team ... the 1975 Naismith Award winner and consensus national player of the year ..."
Louder applause now, some whistling.
"Drafted No. 1 overall in both the NBA and the ABA and graduating as the leading scorer in North Carolina State history and as the ACC's single-game scoring record holder ..."
Kinda parsed, but so what (Rodney Monroe, playing with four years of eligibility, and Danny Ferry would later take both marks from him.) But it was all working up to a huge finish. We were now cheering loudly, forcing the P.A. to boom out his words.
"The only man ever to have his number retired at N.C. State," and now we were roaring, ready to lose it, but we wanted to hear his name.
"The Greatest Player in the History of the Atlantic Coast Conference ... number forty-four ... David ... Thompson ...."
Deafening cheers. A half-full arena, hand-to-God just as loud as I have ever heard Reynolds against UNC or Duke.
That day, now 20 years old, is why you do not ever bring that man's number back, for any reason, N.C. State. And it's why no other university should unretire their most beloved players' numerals, for any reason or length of time, either.
To this day I know that if the number 44 is ever announced for competition at N.C. State, the closest thing to a miracle will have taken place, as it did on Aug. 31. Seeing Thompson get up off the bench and lope onto the floor on his bad knees, slapping five as we wailed (and we did. I saw tears.) was like ... like the Navy had recommissioned the Battleship North Carolina, and it had returned to save us all.
The moment is completely Arthurian in its majesty. It is the moment you create when you choose to retire a number. It is the memory you destroy when you bring it back.
Owen Good is a 1995 graduate of North Carolina State University. He writes for Kotaku from his home in Elkin, N.C.
Image of Devin Gardner by Getty | Image of David Thompson via GoPack.com