Many team sports have various rules and traditions regarding player numbering. Professional basketball is no different in this regard and there are various rules in play within the NBA that teams must adhere to. As well as looking at number rules more generally, we will look at why no player can choose to wear the number 69. It may come as a surprise but no player in NBA history has ever worn this number and it is a rule that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
NBA Numbering Rules
The NBA is quite flexible when it comes to jersey numbers, despite them not allowing the number 69. Numbers do not relate to positional play so NBA stars are not limited to particular numbers based on their role. Instead, they have basically the full choice of any single or two-digit number between 0 and 99. This includes the number 00 and there have been seasons in which two players from the same team have worn 0 and 00.
Most jerseys, however, feature a number or numbers between 1 and 5, so 1–5, 10–15, 20–25, 30–35, 40–45, and 50–55. Seeing a 6, 7, 8 or 9 on an NBA jersey is much less common but they do exist and there is nothing in the rules forbidding it, or even discouraging it.
There is no real reason for the trend, but traditionally all levels of American basketball have stuck to the 1-5 format. This has long been the case in the NCAA and they only changed their stance ahead of the 2023-24 season, now allowing any number between 0 and 99.
Over time this means we should see a greater variety of numbers in the NBA. This is because players, who usually come to the NBA from college basketball, often stick with the same number due to a sentimental, or superstitious, attachment to it.
Why Not 69?
With 69 ticking the box of being a two-digit number between 0 and 99, in theory there should be no issue with an NBA player wearing it.
The league does not allow it though because of the number’s sexual connotation.
The NBA likes to promote itself as a family friendly event so having a player donning a number used to describe a sexual position is something they are keen to avoid. Whilst that might seem strange, or even a little puritanical, America is, undoubtedly, a very different place to the UK. It also avoids the risk of upsetting some fans, with or without children, who might be offended by seeing it.
This is the only reason why NBA players cannot wear the 69 jersey. For some, it seems a strong response for the sake of just a harmless number but there is little incentive for the NBA to change policy now. A reversal of their stance would create a few unwanted headlines and additional attention on players wearing the newly legal number. Continuing to ban it though creates no problems as there are so many other numbers to choose from. Given that NBA rosters are limited to 15 during the regular season, it is hardly as though teams are desperately short of available numbers, even if they have retired a couple.
As one of the finest defensive players of his generation, Dennis Rodman was something of a specialist in denying opposition players points. Following his move to the Dallas Mavericks in 1999 though, it was the 6ft 7in small/power forward that found himself denied, not by a fellow player, but the league itself. During an unveiling, Rodman stood beside a white Mavericks jersey showing the number 69, fully intending for that to be his official roster number.
The Mavs themselves were happy for the Worm to have the number 69 and even printed some jerseys with the Rodman 69 combination. Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavericks, said that NBA commissioner at the time David Stern took a very dim view of the situation though and denied the request. With Cuban subject to regular fines by the league at the time and Rodman not someone Stern was fond of, there was no hope of getting the league to reconsider their veto.
Due to this, the always-controversial Rodman’s hope of wearing the 69 jersey for the 1999-00 season quickly disappeared and he instead opted for 70. He settled on this compromise because 70 was simply 69+1. This was not the first time Rodman had worn a rather unusual number in the NBA, having worn 91 and 73 prior to this. All the headlines Rodman generated off the court during his time at the Mavs heavily outnumbered those he generated on it.
Citing internal issues, Rodman only lasted 29 days (12 games) before leaving Dallas.
69 In Other Sports?
The NBA is very much an outlier when it comes to its stance on not having the number 69 on a jersey. Across other sports, even those popular in America, players are free to choose this number and there are several examples of them exercising this option. In the NFL players such as Jared Allen, David Bakhtiari and Keith Simms have all donned the “naughty” number.
It is something that has also been spotted in the MLB, particularly with the Pittsburgh Pirates who have had a string of players choosing the number. More recent examples include Beau Sulser, Troy Stokes Jr., John Nogowski and Danny Ortiz; and yet despite this, the fabric of US society did not crumble and life went on. Who would have thought it?
Given the amount of professional football (soccer) players, it is perhaps a surprise that examples of players with 69 are much rarer, although they still exist. Part of the reason is that some managers refuse to allow it. When Sir Alex Ferguson told Brain McClair he could have any number he wanted, he really meant any jersey other than 69. McClair insisted on having the only forbidden digits in the sport for days before he eventually backed down and settled on 13.
The most famous example of a footballer wearing 69 is former Bayern Munich star Bixente Lizarazu. He had a perfectly innocent reason for doing so though. At 1.69m tall, 69kg in weight and born in 1969, it was a number he had a strong personal connection to. The fact that it had an additional meaning was simply a coincidence, or at least that was the Frenchman’s claim – and of course, the French would know little about soixante-neuf.