Numbers tell stories. When I see 23, I don’t see of the number that comes between 22 and 24.
I see Michael Jordan, No. 23 of the Chicago Bulls. He’s dunking from the free-throw line. He’s hitting another improbable three against Portland. He’s ruining another Cleveland postseason. He’s guarding Magic Johnson after Magic has been diagnosed with the AIDS virus, at the All-Star game in Orlando, with other players stepping aside to let the great ones work.
When I see 3, I don’t see the number that comes between 2 and 4.
I see Dale Earnhardt driving the 3 to another victory and another championship. He’s filling the rearview mirror of the temporary leader. Earnhardt is spinning the guy and, beneath his mustache, grinning. The 3 is a beacon to working-class fan because it belongs to, despite Earnhardt’s riches, one of the last of the working-class drivers.
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Earnhardt won seven championships, six in the 3 car. Jordan won six NBA championships.
Chicago retired Jordan’s 23 in 1994 (after Jordan retired for the first time).
NASCAR ought to retire Earnhardt’s No. 3 before the 2014 season begins.
Richard Childress, who owns the number, unfortunately will bring it back. He had said he’d allow only a member of Earnhardt’s family or of his own to sport the number. Next season Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon, will drive the 3.
Dillon appears to be a talent, a champion in the Truck Series and Nationwide Series. Like Earnhardt, Dillon is from North Carolina. (Dillon is from Lewisville.) And he’s only 23.
But even if Dillon becomes a star, why not allow him to forge his own legacy with his own number? Can you imagine another Chicago Bull wearing 23?
Dale Earnhardt died in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and the 3 also expired. It became 29.
Childress is a classy guy who has done everything a man can do in racing, and it’s tough to imagine anybody more loyal to Earnhardt and the Earnhardt legacy.
I like and respect Childress. I don’t like what he’s doing.
Of course some fans will be thrilled next season when the 3 takes a lead or takes no prisoners, when it wins a race or spins a driver.
Go to any NASCAR race and, almost 13 years after Earnhardt’s death, 3 caps and T-shirts still are abundant. Maybe the return of the 3 will create a huge demand among new fans, however many there are, who are close to Dillon’s age.
But when other fans see the 3, sadness will overtake them. For them, only one man drove the 3 car, and only one man ever will.
Why do we retire numbers?
We retire them out of respect for the man or woman who wore it on a jersey, or the side of a car.
The act says to an athlete: "You’re singular. Nobody will do what you did the way you did it. Let it be known now that the number is forever yours. And every time people see it, they will think of you."
I don’t know Dillon, but if he’s anything like his grandfather, I hope he has a fine career.
No matter how good he is the 3 will continue to tell me a story.
And it won’t be his.