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Tip-Off Timer: No. 9 Has Many Lives

Oct 18, 2009 – 9:00 AM
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Rob Peterson

Rob Peterson %BloggerTitle%

Tip-Off Timer counts down the days until the first game of the 2009-10 season. On Sunday, there are nine days remaining.

At first glance, it might appear that the No. 9 hasn't had much meaning in the NBA.

Only two Hall of Famers have worn it (the Hawks' Bob Pettit and Bobby Wanzer, who sported "09" for seven of his nine seasons with the Rochester Royals), only two teams have retired it (the Hawks for Pettit and the Suns for Dan Majerle's tan) and -- with apologies to Literrial Green and Ruben Nembhard -- most of the other 185 players to don the digit have besmirched it with little more than the sweat from pregame warmups.

Yet, upon closer inspection, it's clear the No. 9 has played a significant role in the history of basketball -- from the game's invention to its greatest player to the ball itself (which is just more than nine inches in diameter).

To control his restless seminary students at a Springfield, Mass., YMCA, James Naismith reached back to his childhood in Canada, borrowed the basics of a game called "Duck on a Rock," wrote 13 rules in about an hour and thus invented "Basket Ball."

Naismith's rowdy class had 18 students, and because his original rules said nothing about substitutions, everyone played at the same time. So, the first game of hoops featured an unwieldy nine players on each side.

Reports of that first contest make it sound like a soccer game played by six-year-olds, where the players are drawn to the ball as if it were a magnet. Thanks to a crowded 50-foot-by-35-foot court and the fact that the players possessed Eric Snow-like shooting skills, the 1-0 final score shouldn't be considered surprising. Still that game featured more offense than one of those mid-'90s Knicks-Heat grindfests.

Thankfully, the sport has evolved since that first game (and the mid-'90s) and the No. 9, though not overt, continued to weave its way into the fabric of the game via two of basketball's greatest players: Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan.

You can barely go two pages in the records section of the official NBA Guide without seeing Chamberlain's name. When he retired in 1973, he owned nearly every scoring record. While some of the records -- most points in a game, 100; highest scoring averages, 50.2 -- are frightening and awe-inspiring, Wilt also holds some of the more mundane marks.

One of them is most seasons leading the league in free-throw attempts (which he did nine times). It would have been 10, but during the 1964-65 season, which Wilt split between San Francisco and Philadelphia, his 976 attempts were one free throw behind future teammate Jerry West's 977.

As for Jordan, it only seemed as if he spent most of his career shooting free throws. He led the league in free-throw attempts only once, when he shot 972 in 1986-87. That same season was Jordan's first in which he led the league in field goal attempts, the start of a record nine seasons in which he led the NBA.

Back in the mid-80s, Jordan was criticized for only being a volume scorer. That criticism of his game stopped as soon as he started winning NBA titles as well as scoring titles in the early '90s. And it was around that time when, in a twist of fate, Jordan came to wear the No. 9 for the second time in his career.

When FIBA voted to allow professionals to play in the 1992 Barcelona Games, there was little question that Jordan and the top NBA players would be on the squad. Because FIBA only allows players to wear Nos. 4-15, Jordan couldn't don his iconic No. 23 in Spain. So, as he did in the 1984 Los Angeles games, Jordan wore No. 9 during his second Olympics appearance -- making him without question the best player ever to rock the number, even if he did so for all of a month out of his entire career.

Turns out the No. 9 had more lives than we thought.
Filed under: Sports