When Marvin Bagley III committed to Duke a little more than a week ago, I experienced the same rush of excitement that I figure most Blue Devil fans felt. It’s rare that any college basketball team can pick up a player this close to the start of the school year—and in this case, one that so dramatically lifts his team’s chances of bringing home a national title.
But in the moment when Bagley pulled a Duke jersey out of that bag, I neglected to notice the number 35 on it.
Yes, that 35 is a number unworn by any Blue Devil in the last 28 years. And it has hung in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium since February 18, 1989, for good reason—Danny Ferry helped Duke to three Final Four appearances, was twice named first-team All-ACC and became the first player in program history to rack up 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists.
So why would Bagley be holding up a retired number on national TV? Well, according to Ferry in an interview with The Chronicle last week, “Jeff Capel and I had talked about it a while ago, at which time I offered and said I was totally fine with it at some point if they needed to use one of the retired jerseys.”
I was initially skeptical of this statement. For as good as some of these top recruits are, some can often be prima donnas who just wish they could bypass college for the NBA, and I could easily see one of them deciding against playing at a certain school simply because they would not be allowed to wear a certain number.
Fortunately, it appears as if this was not a special exception made only for Bagley, but rather part of a running conversation that the Blue Devil coaching staff has probably maintained with most, if not all, of the players whose numbers have been retired that started before Bagley was even in the picture.
In all of this, though, I am still somewhat bothered by the fact that any retired number is going back into use—especially for a guy who is almost certainly going to be a one-and-done. The unofficial rules at Duke for lifting a number to the rafters have always been the same: graduate and win a national award—National Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, NCAA record-holder, first-team All-American or Olympic gold medalist.
The first of those two criteria will likely never be met unless Bagley eventually comes back to Durham to finish his degree after his NBA career ends. And as talented as both the Blue Devils and Bagley may be this season, there is a pretty good chance that the team doesn’t have its one shining moment come April and Bagley doesn’t win any national awards.
Is Duke simply throwing away one of its most unique traditions? Even with all the success the program has had in the Coach K era, there are just 13 retired numbers. All of those legends wore the blue and white for four seasons with the exception of Dick Groat, Art Heyman, Jeff Mullins and Jason Williams, who graduated in three years. The other three were not allowed to compete at the varsity level as freshmen since they played before 1972.
On top of those 13, there are others—some of whom meet the criteria and some of whom do not—whose numbers were not retired.
Nolan Smith was a first-team All-American as a senior when he averaged 20.6 points per game. Chris Carrawell was a consensus first-team All-American and ACC Player of the Year during his senior season in 2000. And you can’t forget Trajan Langdon (never got a national honor) and Elton Brand (did not graduate), among others.
I get it, though. Given the NCAA’s rules and the 13 retired jerseys, current Blue Devils only have 23 numbers to choose from. And when Bagley committed, 13 of those 23 were already taken by players on the roster.
Still, why not one of the other 10 available? I know most top players shy away from numbers in the 50s, but Nos. 13, 21 or 30 would have looked perfectly fine on Bagley. Instead, he elected to stick with his high school number and take a piece of Blue Devil tradition with him.
Ultimately, there are plenty of things that are a bigger deal. It is not as if banners are coming down for a major violation.
The point is, getting your number retired at Duke is hard. And it should not be this easy to bring one of those numbers down.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."