Antwain Johnson wears uniform number 2 as a testament to a friendship. A guard for the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team, he learned six years ago that one of his dear friends, who wore No. 2, was told he would never be able to play basketball again.
Reggie Witherspoon wore No. 4 when he played basketball, because he was the youngest of four children. The fourth-year Canisius coach also idolized NBA great Jerry West, who wore No. 44 during his playing career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Uniform numbers can be the easiest identifier of a student-athlete. For many Big 4 basketball players, there’s a story as to why they wear a specific uniform number.
Sometimes it’s simple: One number was already taken, so a player grabs another number from a stack of uniforms. Perhaps a number pays homage to another individual. Some numbers are iconic. Others can be personal.
“Everybody has different meanings behind why they wear a certain number,” Niagara guard Shandon Brown said. “I think it all just depends on the person, their preference and their reason behind it. If it’s meaningful to you, you can wear whatever number you want to. It’s cool.”
Honoring a friend
Johnson, the Bulls' guard, grew up with Chai Baker in the Florida panhandle, and Johnson was so excited to see Baker fulfill a dream of earning a scholarship to play basketball at Oregon State.
But in August of 2014, Baker went into cardiac arrest during a team workout in Corvallis, Ore. Less than three months after Baker collapsed because of an enlarged heart, he had to retire from basketball.
Baker would have worn uniform number 2 at Oregon State.
“He almost died from that, and from that, I started playing for him,” said Johnson, who switched from No. 24 when he went to Middle Tennessee State in 2016. “I told him, ‘I’m going to wear No. 2 for you.’
“He knew how much love I had for him, and we’ve both got a lot of love for each other. He was a really good player, and I think of all the guys I knew, he had a chance to go to the NBA.”
The number zero
When Justin Roberts joined the Niagara basketball team as a transfer from Toledo in the fall of 2018, the number he wore was taken.
“Five was the one I wanted,” Roberts said. “I’d worn that all my life. I saw that James (Towns) had it.”
He wasn’t going to ask for the uniform number. As a transfer, he had no seniority.
But another uniform number was available, one worn by Frank Mason, a former point guard at the University of Kansas. Roberts’ father, Norm, is an assistant coach for the Jayhawks.
“I always loved his game,” Roberts said of Mason. “That was my second choice for a uniform number. You can’t really ask for someone’s number, because they’re probably not going to give it to you.”
Kyle Lofton ran into a similar quandary when he joined the Bona men’s basketball team in the fall of 2018. He wore No. 4, but Nelson Kaputo, a senior guard, had already claimed it. The next number Lofton asked for was zero.
“No real reason why I picked it, but I like zero,” Lofton said. “It’s unique.”
Four, however, had a significance to Lofton. His three older brothers, Calvin Jr., Zarah and Ashton all wore No. 4 as high school football and basketball players in their hometown of Hillside, N.J.
Instead of switching to No. 4 once Kaputo graduated, Lofton retained his number.
UB’s Jeenathan Williams wears No. 11, but he always takes notice of a player who wears the number zero, including teammate David Nickelberry.
“It’s a cool number,” Williams said. “It’s got a little swag to it.”
Double digits and hand signals
Williams switched to No. 11 from No. 23 when he joined the Prolific Prep basketball team in Northern California in the fall of 2017.
“That’s the age where I really started to take basketball serious,” Williams said. “Everything did a U-turn in my life. I liked No. 23 because LeBron James wore it, and that’s my idol. When I started taking basketball serious, I thought, No. 11 is mine.”
When Williams was on the court, he always noticed players who wore double digits. His uniform number also makes it easier for referees to identify him to a scorer, by holding up each index finger on his or her hand to show Williams’ 11.
At the college level, rosters only include uniform numbers that go up to the number five. College basketball players cannot wear any of the numbers 6, 7, 8 or 9.
The 2018-19 NCAA men’s basketball rule book states: “The following numbers are legal: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 00, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, and 55. Team rosters can include 0 or 00, but not both.”
John Adams, a former NCAA’s men’s basketball supervisor of officials, told The New York Times in 2015 that the system is set up so that referees flash only two hands to make signals that signify the uniform number of a player who is whistled for a foul, a simpler interpretation for a scorer. If a player was wearing 7, hand signals could be interpreted as “52.”
“Forty four, 55, 22, 11, numbers like that, those are unique, too,” Williams said. “Even Luka Doncic, who wears 77 (for the Dallas Mavericks). That’s cool.”
A favorite player
Nick MacDonald’s father, Mike, never played college basketball, but when he played in high school, the Daemen coach wore No. 22. So did Mike MacDonald’s brother, John, who played at Dowling College, a Division II school on Long Island that closed in 2016.
Nick MacDonald grew up playing basketball but never really had an affinity for a specific number. Whatever number was available, he grabbed it.
In his junior year at Canisius High School, Nick had to pick a uniform number, and he landed on No. 22. It was almost fate. Now a freshman guard for the Purple Eagles, he models his game after Duncan Robinson, who wore No. 22 at Michigan and who now plays (and wears No. 55) for the NBA’s Miami Heat.
“I felt like me and him played similar styles,” Nick MacDonald said of Robinson. “We’re both shooters, we’re both really smart players, and I just love watching him play.”
In more than 35 years of coaching high school and college basketball, Witherspoon has never gotten an unusual request for a uniform number.
“But the most overt thing I can remember with uniforms is that it’s worn by a player because they’ve seen another player wear the jersey, a player whom they look up to,” the Canisius coach said. “ ‘Someone else wore this number, so I want to wear it.’ ”
Brown, the Niagara guard, has worn No. 12 as a basketball player and as a football player. Growing up in Boston, he and his father, Shawn, watched basketball games almost every chance they got, and Brown noticed that his dad rooted for God Shammgod, a former Providence point guard who wore No. 12 and whose signature move in his 20-game NBA career with the Washington Wizards was a distinct one-handed crossover dribble. (Shammgod wore No. 2 with the Wizards.)
“That’s really where the No. 12 started in my family,” Brown said. “My brother wore No. 12 when he played basketball. It’s a family tradition. All of us wear 12.”
Brown has been lucky when it comes to sticking to his uniform number. He’s always been able to draw uniform No. 12 on every team he’s played for, in high school sports, and in college and in AAU basketball.
At Niagara, he said, he was the only player who asked to wear No. 12 this season.
“I guess it worked out in my favor,” Brown said.
Brock Bertram, a center on the UB men’s basketball team, chose No. 41 as a freshman at Apple Valley (Minn.) High School. His mother, Jill, wore No. 41 when she was a center on the Shakopee (Minn.) High School basketball team.
“She taught me everything I first learned about basketball, so I just want to represent her,” Bertram said. “She’s in Minnesota, so when she’s watching the games, I carry a little bit of her on the court. I’ve worn 41 in high school and in college, so I always thought this was a neat little thing between us.”