DISCLAIMER: I had this post mostly ready to go in mid-January of this year but got distracted with other things. I figured I could hold it a bit. After all, who's going to write something about the number zero in the NBA during the 2014-2015 season? Well, about six weeks ago, Tom Ziller, whom I follow on Twitter and read regularly, beat me to the punch. Go figure. Before you read my post, go read Tom's post. He said it first after all. Plus he has a really cool graph.
I was sitting with my girlfriend a couple of months ago watching some Wizards game on TV (I believe it was the January 14 game at Chicago) when she asked me "What's with all these guys wearing zero?" My immediate response was "It's because of Gilbert Arenas." This was not the first time she had asked me this question. That night it was because Aaron Brooks was playing in the game for Chicago but before that I'm sure I'd been asked the question about Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Avery Bradley and probably a handful of other players. Each time I was asked the same question in the past, I gave the same response. So in between work, an All-Star Weekend in New York and some discouraging play from my favorite basketball squad, I thought I'd better find out if I was right.
My uneducated and unresearched impression about zero jerseys was that the number of players wearing that jersey had been on the rise recently. Like really noticeably. Turns out that hunch is correct. According to Basketball-Reference.com, there have been 62 players who have worn the number zero since the 1946-1947 season, which the NBA now considers its first season. Of those 62 players, only 11 wore the number before the 2001-2002 season, which was Gilbert Arenas' rookie season. In case you are counting seasons, that's 11 players in the first 55 years of the league's existence and 51 in the last 14 years.
So something's going on there, right? There's an average of one player every five years until the end of the 2000-2001 season and an average of 3.64 players per year after that. That's a 1821% increase in zero wearers between those two spans. The numbers are a bit skewed here. The first player to wear zero was Johnny Jorgensen who played just one game for the Chicago Stags during the 1948-1949 season. The next time someone donned a zero jersey was 1982, when Orlando Woolridge suited up for the Chicago Bulls (something about Chicago I guess), so there was a very large zero-less period in the league there.
Looking at the recent numbers in more detail provides additional clarity to the zero jersey's upswing. From the 2001-2002 season to the 2007-2008 season (or from Gilbert's rookie season until the last time he made the All-Star team), there were an average of 5.3 players in the league each year wearing zero. The following season (2008-2009), that number stays pretty much the same at 5. This five or so number is generally attributable to multiple players wearing the number zero consistently for several seasons in a row: Walter McCarty at the beginning of this period; Arenas throughout; Jeff McInnis in the middle; and Aaron Brooks and Russell Westbrook at the end.
Starting with the 2010-2011 season, though, the numbers explode. That year, nine players wore zero. The next year, 12. Ever since then, the number of players wearing zero has never dropped into single digits. The last two years have seen 15 players wearing zero and during the 2012-2013 season, the number peaked at 17. Something happened from 2001 to today that caused about half the teams in the NBA to sport a number zero on their roster consistently for five years after pretty much nothing (or zero if you prefer) in the league's first fifty plus years. I'm making the case it's all because of Gilbert.
Gilbert chose the number zero when he entered college at the University of Arizona. He chose that number because the number he wanted, 25, was retired at the University of Arizona (Steve Kerr) and, according to Gilbert, "Zero is the number of minutes people predicted I would play my freshman year at Arizona." It became the biggest chip on Gilbert's shoulder that he carried until the time he signed his six year, $111 million contract in the summer of 2008. So did other players copy Gil?
Some of the Gilbert Arenas influence among players in the NBA is pretty obvious. Larry Hughes, Nick Young and Andray Blatche all wore (or wear) zero playing for teams after they left the Wizards. All three of those guys were Gilbert's guys, either as a back court running mate (Hughes) or as a protégé of sorts (Young and Blatche). I didn't research interviews with these guys to get their first hand rationale for wearing zero. I figured I didn't have to. These guys are slam dunks.
It is perhaps more informative to seek out the logic for some other guys who wear zero, notably Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks, Avery Bradley, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. Each of these guys has either made an All-Star appearance or has been in the league long enough to sign multiple significant deals. I struck out with Teague but found something on the other four.
Avery Bradley claims he wears number zero because when he got to the University of Texas he felt like he had to prove himself all over again. Gee, who does that sounds like? Russell Westbrook wanted the number 4 when he got to college but it was unavailable, so he decided to go with zero to represent a new beginning. Yep, it sounds like I've heard that before. Aaron Brooks had a similar experience when he found the number 30 available when he got to the University of Oregon. And Damian Lillard's story is that his zero is actually an O, symbolizing his journey from Oakland to Ogden (Utah) to Portland, Oregon.
Bradley, Westbrook and Brooks totally copied Gilbert. Their stories may be significantly different for them to believe they are not copying Gil, but they are. If Gilbert hadn't paved the way for zero symbolizing a new beginning or a need to prove oneself all over again, they never would have come up with it. And I'm totally not buying Lillard's story. Would he wear number 1 if he had been selected by the Indiana Pacers because I looks like 1? I don't think so.
Why do I think I'm arrogant enough to question these guys' stories? Here's why.
Why do I think I'm arrogant enough to question these guys' stories? Here's why.
My opinion is Gilbert started getting really popular league-wide when he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award after the 2002-2003 season and peaked with his three All-Star appearances in 2005 through his All-Star start in 2007 (the first player wearing zero to appear in the All-Star Game by the way). All-Star starters are of course determined through a popularity contest known as fan voting and in December 2006 and January 2007, Gilbert was arguably the hottest player in the game. Hotter even than Kobe.
So assuming kids in high school are watching the NBA and switching their numbers from whatever they had before to zero to match their newest hoop hero in Gilbert Arenas, we are looking at four (assuming a switch in sophomore year of high school and one year of college) to eight years (assuming a switch in freshman year of high school and four years of college) before those same kids are in the NBA. That would put the zero explosion based on Gilbert's influence between the 2009-2010 season and the 2013-2014 season, which is exactly what happened assuming kids adopted the number between 2003 and 2007. Brooks was a freshman at Oregon in 2003, Westbrook followed at UCLA two years later and Lillard started at Weber State in '08, a year before Bradley graduated high school.
This is a theory and the math sort of magically works out, but my opinion is that it is correct. Whatever you want to think, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Today, you see kids in college wearing zero all the time and they are likely wearing the number because of Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard or some other player. But for me (and likely for a lot of other folks), the number zero begins and ends with Gilbert Arenas. 'Nuff said!