Why did Lakers’ LeBron James switch his jersey number from 23 to 6?
Year 19 is officially here.
LeBron James enters the season fueled by skeptics who doubt whether the Lakers can overcome questions about whether age will hold them back.
It’s also the biggest return of LeBron’s career. Well, OK, maybe not the biggest, but it’s always notable when one of the league’s biggest stars changes his jersey number.
Ahead of his fourth season with the Lakers, James is ditching No. 23 in favor of No. 6. The four-time NBA MVP began his professional career with the Cavaliers wearing No. 23, then switched to No. 6 when he played for the Heat from 2010-14. After winning a couple of championships in Miami, James pulled out No. 23 for his second stint in Cleveland and stuck with it in Los Angeles.
So, what prompted James to bring back No. 6? And why is the number so significant to him?
The story behind LeBron James’ change to No. 6
James wanted to change his jersey number in 2019 when the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis from the Pelicans in a blockbuster trade. James even posted a photo of Davis holding a No. 23 jersey once the deal had been finalized. Davis had worn the number for his first seven NBA seasons.
Unfortunately for James and Davis, the swap had to wait because Nike, the official outfitter for the league, would have reportedly taken a “massive financial hit” because of the amount of apparel that had already been produced. With Nike not giving the Lakers stars the go-ahead signal, Davis landed on No. 3. (He chose to stick with that number after winning his first NBA championship in 2020.)
But James’ switch was always about more than just doing a favor to his teammate.
When asked about his thought process on shifting to No. 6, James told reporters last week that the number has “always been part of me.” His first child, Bronny, was born on Oct. 6, and his second child, Bryce, was born in June, the sixth month of the year. Beyond his personal connection, James has previously expressed his admiration for Julius Erving, who wore No. 6 with the 76ers.
“Six has a lot of meaning to me, not only from my family and numbers and things of that nature to what I believe in and things of that sort — but my mentality doesn’t change,” James said. “Going out, being an overall basketball player, trying to dominate at all facets of the game, being a great teammate and being a great leader.”
As The Athletic’s Tim Cato noted, the timing also matched up perfectly with the summer release of “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which featured James in a No. 6 Tune Squad jersey.
LeBron James’ history with No. 6 and No. 23
James wore the No. 23 jersey at St. Vincent–St. Mary High School and kept rolling with it after being selected by the Cavs with the top pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. James has often cited the NBA’s most famous No. 23, Michael Jordan, as a source of inspiration.
“When I started playing basketball, I was like, ‘Oh man, that two-three looks good. I wanna be able to fly like him. I wanna be able to shoot like him. I wanna be able to dunk on somebody like him. I wanna be able to stick out my tongue like him in the air and yell in somebody’s face like MJ,'” James said in 2019.
“So, ever since I started playing ball, I wore No. 23.”
During his seventh season in Cleveland, James declared that every NBA player wearing No. 23 should drop it out of respect for Jordan.
“I just think what Michael Jordan has done for the game has to be recognized some way soon,” James said in 2009. “There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn’t Michael Jordan first. He can’t get the logo, and if he can’t, something has to be done. I feel like no NBA player should wear 23.
“I’m starting a petition, and I’ve got to get everyone in the NBA to sign it. Now, if I’m not going to wear No. 23, then nobody else should be able to wear it.”
James switched to No. 6 after signing with the Heat, and he continued to wear that number on his practice uniform even after donning No. 23 as a member of the Cavs and Lakers. That decision was a nod to another one of James’ childhood heroes, Deion Sanders, who wore No. 21 during games but No. 2 at practices.
Outside of NBA competition, James has worn No. 6 in multiple Olympic Games.