Tue Jun 14 05:00am EDT
Providence guard Mike Murray's introduction to life as a college basketball walk-on began long before his coaches first demoted him to the scout team in practice or relegated him to the end of the bench during games.
Whereas scholarship players at Providence select their own jersey number, Murray didn't receive the same perk. Instead, he discovered he had been assigned a number last fall when he opened a box of practice gear and to his dismay pulled out a No. 53 jersey.
"I got shafted," Murray said with a chuckle. "I was excited just to get a jersey, but it's definitely not the number I'd have chosen. The only 53s I could think of were linebackers in the NFL."
Few famous No. 53s popped into Murray's mind because the number isn't exactly steeped in basketball tradition. Only seven of 345 Division I basketball programs had a player who donned No. 53 last season, making it by far the sport's least popular jersey number.
The small fraternity of players who did wear No. 53 last season each have their own rationale for choosing it.
New Mexico center Alex Kirk has worn No. 53 since high school to honor a player from his hometown of Los Alamos he idolized growing up. Ohio center Ethan Jacobs took No. 53 in college because he relished the chance to leave a mark on a number no Bobcats player in school history had ever worn before. And Texas forward Clint Chapman wore No. 53 in high school because it was the only jersey large enough to fit him, but he soon grew fond of having a number not associated with any of today's high-profile stars.
"Everybody seems to pick a number that's connected to some famous player somewhere," Chapman said. "With 53, there haven't been the Jordans, Kobes or LeBrons. So I think it's appealing to know you can have an impact on a number that hasn't already been claimed."
High school and middle school teams that use the same uniforms each year typically offer the highest-numbered ones in the biggest sizes, so the largest kids who require jumbo jerseys often have no choice but to take a number in the 50s. Players say that phenomenon has stigmatized those numbers at every level of basketball, contributing to the fact that only three pros have ever worn a jersey in the 50s and had it retired by an NBA team.
College players seeking a more desirable number can only choose from a maximum of 36 potential options since the NCAA forbids them from selecting numbers containing a digit higher than five. Athletes typically select their jersey numbers for many reasons, from honoring a great player from a previous generation, to symbolizing a meaningful event in their life, to tapping into a number they believe has brought them good luck.
"Most elite performers have habits, routines and rituals that help them feel most comfortable and able to perform to their peak ability," said Dr. Charlie Brown, an AASP-certified sports psychologist based in Charlotte, N.C. "For a lot of the athletes that includes their jersey number. It has to do with a familiarity, a comfort and sometimes just a little bit of superstition."
One player whose college career counters that theory is ex-Atlanta Hawks center Jon Koncak, who wore a number he loathed in the early 1980s at Southern Methodist yet established himself as one of the nation's premier big men anyway.
The only jerseys big enough to fit Koncak in middle school and high school were No. 55 and No. 53, but the 7-footer yearned to ditch those once he got to college in favor of the No. 32 that belonged to his childhood hero Bill Walton. Instead, he had to wait until he reached the NBA to switch numbers because then-SMU coach Dave Bliss came to Koncak's high school in Kansas City the day he signed his letter of intent and presented him with a No. 53 Mustangs jersey with his last name on it.
"He didn't know I didn't want to wear 53," Koncak said. "I was so bummed, but I just figured I was in a photograph holding the jersey, so I had to stick with 53. When I went to the pros, I switched from 53 to 32 immediately."
Even one of basketball's most iconic No. 53s fittingly chose the number almost by accident.
Artis Gilmore, the 1972 ABA MVP and a six-time NBA All-Star, wore No. 32 his senior year of high school and No. 54 at Gardner Webb Junior College. Neither of those were available when he enrolled at Jacksonville University in 1969, so Gilmore settled for 53, a number he quickly grew fond of after taking the Dolphins to the national title game in 1970 and leading the nation in rebounding both seasons.
"I've been attached to it ever since," Gilmore said. "It has become me, a part of me just like my name. Artis Gilmore, No. 53. You become that number and it becomes you."
Former Philadelphia 76ers star Darryl Dawkins is one of the few noteworthy players to wear No. 53 since Gilmore, a fact that diminishes the appeal of the number to many of today's players but increases it for those who value blazing their own trail.
Recent Duke grad Casey Peters selected No. 53 before his junior year in 2009 because an uncommon number was symbolic of his atypical journey from student manager his first two seasons to walk-on guard for his final two. His father later pointed out it was a fitting choice since Peters' younger brother wears No. 13 at Emory College in Atlanta and his younger sister is No. 33 for the Duke women's team.
"I definitely think it fits me," Peters said. "One of the main reasons why I chose to wear it is because it's unique. My story is something that nobody else has ever done. My whole life I've kind of done my own thing, so the fact that it's unique is cool."