Tierney Jenkins was the Most Valuable Player of the 2006 Girls’ State Championships won by Wilson Central. She wore No. 21 when she and a freshman named Jasmine Hassell led the Lady Wildcats to the first of their two state titles in a three-year span.
Less than two hours earlier, she and I had watched another No. 21, Kendall Spray, lead her Lady Wildcat team to an accomplishment Jenkins and Hassell never did - beat Mt. Juliet on the Lady Bears’ home floor.
Amazingly two of Wilson Central’s three greatest players wore (wear) No. 21. The third, and probably the best, two-time Miss Basketball Hassell wore No. 12, which may be why her younger sister, Ieshia, also wore No. 21 after Jenkins left to play for the Alabama Crimson Tide, from where she recently obtained her master’s degree.
When I think of No. 21 on a jersey, the late Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente immediately comes to mind. Others who became famous while wearing the two-one (though the digits themselves don’t necessarily resonate with them) include Sammy Sosa, Dominique Wilkins (the Human Highlight Film), Kevin Garnett, LaDanian Tomlinson, Roger Clemens and Tim Duncan (those names come courtesy of the Human Google, otherwise known as Dean Fox).
Numbers are special in sports. Some of the greatest players are synonymous with a particular digit.
No. 5 will always be Joe DiMaggio or Johnny Bench. Pete Rose remains locked out of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but the Cincinnati Reds will formally retire his No. 14 this season, even though only Pete Rose Jr. has worn that number since Charlie Hustle was banished from the game in 1989 and you can bet no other Red would ever wear it until the end of time.
No. 12 is synonymous with seemingly half the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks - Joe Namath, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Ken Stabler - wore the jersey. It’s still the license plate on a couple of QBs: Tom Brady could add a record fifth SB ring and Aaron Rodgers still has time to get another.
No. 32 used to be worn by the greatest running back(s). After Jim Brown wore it, O.J. Simpson ran with it into the record books. Franco Harris wore it as he and Bradshaw won four Super Bowls. Marcus Allen also donned the numbers. Magic Johnson ran the Lakers Showtime fastbreak in that number. If running backs didn’t wear 32, they wore 34 (Earl Campbell and Walter Payton) or 33 (Tony Dorsett).
No. 8 was worn by Yogi Berra, and then by Joe Morgan. And then by Troy Aikman.
No. 44 is the number of choice for sluggers - Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson (at least during his Yankee and Angel years) and Willie McCovey.
NASCAR is big on numbers, which are owned by the car owners. Richard Petty is synonymous with the 43. Richard Childress may own No. 3, but to fans, it’ll always belong to the late Dale Earnhardt. Rick Hendrick owns the No. 24, which will be driven by Chase Elliott this year. But we’ll always think of it as Jeff Gordon’s car.
At some schools, certain jersey numbers are sacred. Some are retired. At Ole Miss, the No. 38 worn by the late Chucky Mullins when he was paralyzed while making a tackle against Vanderbilt in 1989. He returned to the classroom, but died in 1991. A Rebel player wears the number every year as the recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award.
In the beginning, Babe Ruth wore No. 3 and Lou Gehrig No. 4 because that’s where they batted in the Yankees’ Murderers’ Row lineup. Mickey Mantle started his career as No. 6, but is forever remembered as No. 7.
Baseball’s most famous number is 42, which has been retired throughout the game in honor of Jackie Robinson.
Through fate, the No. 21 has become a symbol of greatness with Wilson Central’s girls’ basketball. I’m not saying it should be retired, since basketball numbers are limited to the digits 0-5 (officials only have five fingers to report fouls), but the number should be memorialized somehow. It could be limited to just the greatest of players, but how does one determine that when one’s a freshman. By the time we realize a player’s greatness, she’ll probably want to stick to the number she’s been wearing since that’s become part of her identity.
There’s time to figure that out. In the meantime, Spray has seven regular-season games plus tournaments to accomplish more greatness in the 21. She’s 32 three-pointers shy of her state-record 139 set last season. She’s averaging 27.2 points per game.
Her coach John Wild, who’s coached a couple of Miss Basketballs during his two-decade career, sent out a campaign poster advocating Spray for Miss Basketball via Twitter on Thursday. She recently made Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd section, the third Wilson Countian so honored in the 35 years I’ve subscribed to the magazine.
She’s a few years from coming of age at 21, but she’ll always be No. 21.