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College Basketball Players Can Wear Digits Above ‘5’ Again

Bill Russell in a USF jersey holding a basketball. He's number 6.
Getty Images

There’s a big change brewing in college basketball, and it’s a doozy. Referees are going to have to count past five without using their fingers.

I’ll explain. The NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel recently approved multiple rule changes for college basketball next season. The one making the most news is part of an an ongoing push to punish flopping. To that end, the block/charge rule has been changed and defenders must now be in position to draw a charge when the offensive player “plants a foot to go airborne to attempt a field goal.”

There are other good rule changes, too. The shot clock will reset to just 20 seconds, and not the standard 30, after an offensive rebound. Ahh, reading the new rules is just getting me excited for next season’s changes. Goaltending calls are reviewable now! Players can wear religious headwear without a waiver! The backboard can now have red and amber lights! Players can call timeouts in midair! And then there is this one that I must simply quote: “Bench personnel who are not students will be allowed to serve as peacekeepers when an altercation occurs.”

All good, or at least all fine in the abstract, but one rule change is better than all the rest. Players can now wear any number from 0-99. This is a big deal! Previously, players could only select numbers that contained digits from 0-5. Here’s what the NCAA men’s and women’s rulebooks said last year:

The following numbers are legal: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 00, 10, 11, 12, 13,
14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 40, 41, 42,
43, 44, 45, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, and 55. Team rosters can include 0
or 00, but not both.

An NCAA men’s basketball official told The New York Times in 2015 that the rule was in place to simplify things when an official signals to the scorekeeper. I always figured it was because referees cannot count that high, but apparently it also makes signaling easier. Sure.

Bill Russell wore No. 6 for San Francisco between 1953 and 1956, but that was about the last time anyone could. Before the 1957-58 season the NCAA changed the rules and barred jersey numbers between 6 and 9 (players could also not wear No. 1 or No. 2 at the time). Teams would be penalized with technical fouls for illegal numbers! I enjoyed this bit on the rules in the Stockton Record by Tom Sprague before that season:

There’s one section which is gloriously incongruous. That states that numbers of the players shall not include a single number one or two and no numbers higher than five, so referees can indicate with their hands what is happening on the floor. The next clause says that referees shall not merely use their hands for the scorer, but shall run over to the table and explain each foul. Maybe he is to use his fingers when he gets to the scorers table. Or better still, write it in the book and the scorer wont have to even worry about bringing a pencil.

The reasoning for this change is pretty simple: Teams are limited in the numbers they can hand out, and several schools have lots of retired numbers. Also players want cool numbers, and now they have more options. I have just one question, though: Would Michael Jordan have chosen 23 if he could’ve worn 69?

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