Of the oddities and frivolities associated with professional sports, jerseys are among the most common discussion topics. Put sleeves on a basketball jersey? Disaster. Wear cream-colored uniforms? Break TV ads. Make a throwback purple? Light it up.
What appears on the jerseys themselves can be equally divisive subjects too, as jersey numbers often have meanings either personal or practical, if not both. Former Milwaukee Buck Sandro Mamukelashvili selected his uniform number based on his position in the 2021 NBA draft. I wear no. 00 in rec leagues, for example, because as a lithe human being, I need all the help I can get when it comes to looking broader. (Editor’s note: why can teams issue 00 and 0 simultaneously? I’ve never understood this. The Bucks briefly rostered both Spencer Hawes and Gary Payton II in 2017 at 00 and 0, respectively, as well as Rodions Kurucs and Donte DiVincenzo in the same alignment in 2021. This unreasonably bothered me.) Victor Wembanyama does not adhere to this approach, but I guess that’s the leverage that comes with being a No. 1 draft pick instead of a guy who grabbed the rim in an empty gym once.
Not all jersey numbers are made equal. This is an understood truth. No. 23 will forever be linked to Michael Jordan. In 2012, newly-signed free agent Marquis Daniels chose to wear the jersey number of a notably traded former Buck to some amount of pearl-clutching. The NBA retired jersey no. 6 league-wide after the passing of the legendary Bill Russell in 2022, ensuring that the list of Bucks who have worn that number never surpasses 18 members.
For a number to have been donned by 18 different players within the same franchise is entirely respectable. However, it is not exactly interesting, because interesting can absolutely be conflated with rare and weird when it comes to jersey numbers.
To add credibility to this exercise, here is the very scientific methodology used to crunch the numbers and determine which eerie integers, exactly, qualify as being rare and weird:
- Determine the jersey numbers least often worn in NBA and ABA history as compiled by Basketball-Reference
- Cross-reference the leagues-wide list with jersey numbers worn by Bucks players since the franchise was founded in 1968
- Identify which Bucks jersey numbers fit the larger commonality trends in NBA and ABA history and which are worn more or less regularly by Milwaukee team members
A handful of items to note before jumping into the rarefied air of Bucks jerseys:
- The most popular uniform number throughout NBA and ABA history is no. 12. Maybe not coincidentally, this is also the most common jersey number in Bucks history, sported by players such as Phil Ford, Luc Mbah a Moute, and most recently, Grayson Allen. If you squint, perhaps there is something poetic to Jabari Parker having worn the most common number in franchise history and despite being the no. 2 pick in his draft class, becoming somewhat of an NBA everyman as he continues to bounce around the fringes of the league.
- Several numbers have only ever been worn by a single player: 63, 65, 68, 72, 73, 76, 83, and 85. None of these have been associated with the Bucks. Looking at the comprehensive lists, it may not come as a surprise that many of the least-worn numbers in American professional basketball—particularly those in the 60s—saw their heyday when real life looked like Pleasantville and the term “barnstorming” was sometimes literal. It feels safe to presume that as the sport became mainstream and more polished—meaning the marketing, branding, and appearances around it became more intentional and sometimes formulaic—the use of some jersey numbers naturally tapered off and became less common.
- The following numbers, for one reason or another, have never graced an official NBA jersey by any player in any era: 58, 64, 74, 75, 78, 79, 80, 82, and 87. Let’s all agree that these are generally fine—if not necessarily aesthetically pleasing—numbers that apply better to sports with larger rosters rather than those with teams capped at fifteen players.
- No. 69 has also never been worn in-game throughout the history of the NBA and ABA because it is unofficially banned in order to avoid any connotations that may not be family-friendly. That didn’t stop Dennis Rodman from trying to wear no. 69, though, when he joined the Dallas Mavericks in 2000. He got as far as holding a jersey emblazoned with 69 at his introductory press conference before the league intervened and made Rodman wear no. 70 to end his career instead. (Once he reached Peak Rodman, his jersey numbers were always esoteric. He is one of eight players to have worn no. 70, and the lone owner of no. 73 from his time with the Los Angeles Lakers. He most prominently wore no. 91 during his Chicago Bulls tenure, which was later worn by fellow quirky number connoisseur Metta World Peace and was rocked during the 2022–23 season by the Boston Celtics’ Blake Griffin and Detroit Pistons shooting guard Deividas Sirvydis.)
- Several members of the Rochester Royals wore uniforms with single digits preceded by a zero during the 1950s, including 03, 07, and 09. All three were on display when the Royals won the 1951 Finals. But alas, adding those extra pieces of fabric did not translate to long-term stability for the franchise, which left Rochester in 1957 en route to becoming the Sacramento Kings.
So which players sit on the biggest, weirdest, rarest thrones when it comes to the annals of Milwaukee Bucks on-court regalia? Let’s see...
Zaid Abdul-Aziz: no. 16
Zaid Abdul-Aziz has a uniquely fascinating jersey lineage (and a fantastic nickname in “The Kangaroo”). He has the distinction of being one of two players to have worn no. 16 for the Bucks before Bob Lanier claimed it as his own in perpetuity.
After the 1969 campaign, Abdul-Aziz became the first player in franchise history to wear no. 35, setting the precedent for future 35s such as Mirza Teletović and Christian Wood. This number change led to Freddie Crawford donning no. 16 for his lone season with the Bucks in 1969–1970, after which the jersey was mothballed for a decade before Lanier brought it out of its first retirement.
Abdul-Aziz was selected at no. 5 overall in the 1968 NBA Draft by the Cincinnati (née Rochester) Royals and played for six franchises over 12 seasons. His highlights include wearing no. 21 for the franchise before it belonged to Vlade Divac and being the first player to wear the no. 35 jersey for the Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder franchise. Abdul-Aziz was also the first to don no. 6 for the Houston Rockets and no. 54 for the Boston Celtics.
Certainly, it was easier for Abdul-Aziz to ring up many firsts as one of the league’s early journeymen. To label him as simply a journeyman, though, would be to do an injustice to Abdul-Aziz’s story.
Known as Don Smith before converting to Islam in 1976, Abdul-Aziz played only 20 games with the Royals before being traded to the Bucks as a rookie. After just 109 games, he was traded again, this time to the SuperSonics. Displeased, Abdul-Aziz intended to sue the league before blossoming with Seattle and averaging a double-double in points and rebounds throughout the 1971–1972 season until he was sidelined by inflammation in the tissues surrounding his heart.
Later in the season, he was acquired by the Rockets, eventually becoming their starting center. However, he would lose that role during training camp prior to the 1974 season when he arrived in suboptimal shape due to fasting during Ramadan. His health reached a point where Abdul-Aziz informed team management that he was quitting the team as he felt unable to play, only to be convinced by his father to return to competition before finishing his career as a backup.
Kyle Korver: no. 26
The semi-rare player to wear the same number throughout his entire career, and rarer still to do so with six franchises, Kyle Korver’s jersey journey was certainly made easier by his choice of the blocky no. 26. As for longevity, of course, Korver’s career as a whole was made easier by the fact that teams began placing a premium on three-point shooting efficiency during his time as a specialist in the league. The one-time NBA All-Star just missed out on being part of the Bucks’ 2021 championship team, as he hung up the jersey for good at age 38 after his sole season with Milwaukee in 2019–2020.
Gary Freeman and Zaza Pachulia: no. 27
United by a common jersey and being the only players to wear no. 27 in Bucks history, Gary Freeman and Zaza Pachulia are opposites in most other respects.
Pachulia is from the country of Georgia; Freeman is from Boise, Idaho. Pachulia played 16 seasons, won two titles, and—like Korver—managed to wear one jersey number throughout it all. Freeman, on the other hand, played one season in the NBA split between the Bucks and the Cleveland Cavaliers, wearing three different jerseys through his 52 games of experience.
While no. 27 is Freeman’s most distinct legacy with the Bucks—and the no. 23 jersey that he debuted for the Cavs franchise as a whole over 11 games will eventually be retired with a suspiciously different name on the back—let’s agree that P.J. Tucker wearing no. 17 during the Bucks’ 2020–2021 championship run was a thoughtful nod to this forebearer.
Andrew Lang and Lindell Wigginton: no. 28
A right-handed big man from Arkansas, Bobby Portis no doubt feels a deep kinship with Andrew Lang... except for his rather conspicuous choice in jersey numbers. Lang’s most memorable moment in the league came in 1997 when the then-Bucks center contested a shot near the rim by Patrick Ewing and caused the New York Knicks star to injure his wrist in a fall, after which he would never make another All-Star game. Ironically, Lang’s career would go on to end just a couple seasons later with him serving as Ewing’s backup for the Manhattan-based squad.
Wigginton, for his part, is a member of the Bucks’ current cadre of combo guards that general manager Jon Horst is totally fine with.
Dave Cowens: no. 36
Hall of Famer Dave Cowens came out of retirement for one last rodeo in 1982–1983, joining the Bucks on the fabled MECCA Arena floor as the only player in franchise history to wear no. 36.
After two years out of the league, Cowens played 25.4 minutes per night, averaging 8.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists across the 40 games he played, including 34 starts.
Coached by Don Nelson with a roster featuring Junior Bridgeman, Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier, Paul Pressey, and Phil Ford alongside Cowens, this team was built to win. They finished first in the Central Division with a record of 51-31 and recorded a net rating of +4.4, powered by the fourth-staunchest defense in the NBA. But after sweeping the Celtics team that Cowens dedicated the rest of his NBA career to—including eight All-Star seasons—in the opening round of the playoffs, their dreams were derailed when Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and the eventual NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers completed a 4-1 gentleman’s sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Semi Ojeleye: no. 37
Built like the business end of a freight train, Semi Ojeleye needed no help looking bigger on the court, and yet he charged forward with jersey no. 37 all the same. His star-crossed stint with Milwaukee in 2021—2022 ended in a midseason trade to the Los Angeles Clippers, which pre-empted his exit from the NBA to the greener (for him) pastures of European pro leagues.
For now, Ojeleye lives on as the only Bucks player to ever wear no. 37, and one of only nine players in league history to put the number on their jersey. As odd as the number is, his company has some surprising name recognition, including Kostas Antetokounmpo, Derek Fisher, Mac McClung, Nick Van Exel, and Metta World Peace.
Rayjon Tucker: no. 59
In college at Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, Rayjon Tucker wore no. 3. As a member of the NBA G League’s Wisconsin Herd, Tucker wore no. 12 en route to becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer. In brief stints with the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets between 2019-2022, he wore no. 6. For five games with the Sixers, he wore no. 9. Ultimately, when he joined the Bucks’ main roster for the stretch run of the regular season and playoffs in 2021–2022, Tucker then chose to wear no. 59. As one does.
Yes, the previous numbers he had worn in the pros up to that point were already spoken for. Yes, there are literally dozens of other numbers he could have requested. And yet, something about Tucker’s commitment to the perplexing no. 59 makes sense. Not only is he the lone player in the history of the NBA and ABA to wear no. 59 for actual game-time minutes, but something about it feels right in the context of the powerful dunks that a 6’3” combo guard often unleashed in the G League and rarely had the opportunity to throw down with the main club.
Good luck out there, Rayjon, wherever you are (he is on his way to play the 2023–2024 season in Italy after spending 2022–23 with Melbourne United in Australia’s National Basketball League).
Axel Toupane: no. 66
Jersey no. 66 debuted in professional hoops stateside when Grady Lewis of the Basketball Association of America’s Detroit Falcons put it on for the 1947 season. Price Brookfield followed suit for Indianapolis Jets in 1949. The inimitable Scot Pollard even became an NBA champion in no. 66 when the Celtics took home the title in 2008.
But none of those players are Axel Toupane.
You cannot realistically tell me that someone born in 1917 is going to do anything except wilt in front of this guy if they met on a basketball court, no matter the name of the league:
The swag is simply not comparable, and that absolutely translates to skill in the matter of being born in the early 1900s vs. the late 1900s.
A post-Bucks Andrew Bogut also put the number on his back during his latter years in the league, but for all intents and purposes, no. 66 belongs to Axel until proven otherwise.
Johnny O’Bryant and Ersan Ilyasova: no. 77
Perhaps the most quintessential of quintessential Bucks, Ersan Ilyasova made no. 77 the third (but not final) number that would adorn his Milwaukee jersey during three separate terms with the team. An inextricable member of the perennial eight-seed squads of the late 2000s and early 2010s, seeing Ilyasova reunite with the franchise to make legitimate pushes toward the title in 2018–2019 and 2019–2020 after he wandered through more ambiguous fits during the interim was heartwarming. Upon his return, his customary no. 7 was the property of Thon Maker, but Maker’s trade in February 2019 opened it back up for the following season, making 2018–19 Ilyasova’s only season with no. 77. Sure, he had miles on his legs, and maybe he was logging more minutes in the playoffs than a journeyman forward should after a decade-plus of playing professional basketball, but he looked at home in a Bucks uniform no matter the number—and with certain players, that counts for something.
Of the 15 players who have worn a no. 77 jersey since it first appeared during an Indianapolis Jets game in 1949, the Bucks have rostered two. In addition to Ilyasova, 2014’s no. 36 overall draft pick Johnny O’Bryant III also sported no. 77.
The two actually shared the floor during O’Bryant’s rookie season, with Ilyasova wearing the no. 7 jersey that he would return to in his final season with the Bucks. Where Ilyasova is somewhat emblematic of a full-circle story for the franchise, JOB’s story is that of the dreamed-about, found-money potential that is best projected onto a second-round draft pick.
Things in Milwaukee never quite worked out for JOB, though. Maybe it was because of the MCL sprain that delayed the start of his first year in the league. Maybe it was the general anxiety of the Jason Kidd coaching era and a crowded frontcourt that at times included Ilyasova, Jabari Parker, Larry Sanders, Steve Novak, and Greg Monroe, among others, before Giannis Antetokounmpo was fully empowered to be the Greek Freak and Khris Middleton was firmly entrenched as second-in-command on the court.
After time with the Nuggets and Charlotte Hornets, as well as a brief reunion with the Bucks prior to the 2021–2022 season, O’Bryant started making trails through various leagues overseas. He most recently played for the Chinese Basketball Association’s Shanghai Sharks alongside other former Bucks Michael Beasley and Eric Bledsoe.
DeAndre’ Bembry: no. 95
DeAndre’ Bembry’s time with the Bucks was brief. The team reunited him with then-head coach Mike Budenholzer—who manned the bench during Bembry’s time with the Atlanta Hawks—to bolster a floundering wing rotation on Feb. 15, 2022. He was waived on April 7, 2022. During that stretch, Bembry played in eight games and suffered a right knee injury that resulted in a torn ACL and MCL, requiring season-ending surgery
Bembry has yet to return to the NBA, and if he never does, at least he has left a legacy. As the first player in league history to wear no. 95 on his uniform, Bembry’s number was close to his heart. Six weeks before Bembry was selected at no. 21 in the 2016 NBA Draft, his younger brother Adrian Potts was shot and killed when he tried to break up a fight near the University of North Carolina-Charlotte campus. Bembry described their relationship as that of “best friends,” saying that the weeks leading up to the draft felt like a “dream came true and a nightmare [at the] same time” with his loss.
Adrian Potts was 20 years old at the time of his death, halfway to his 21st birthday. He was born on Dec. 15, 1995. His memory lives on in the AP World organization, which Bembry founded to help foster advocacy and community support to reduce youth violence and homicide.
Jae Crowder: no. 99
A slew of players have worn no. 99 in the NBA, and an alarming number of them have paired it with a Celtics uniform, including Roy Rogers, Darko Miličić, Tacko Fall, and the recently-waived Justin Champagnie.
None of them have taken their dedication to the number to the extent of Jae Crowder, though, who has worn no. 99 in each of the seven NBA cities he has called home. Crowder’s jersey number is a dedication to and remembrance of his friendship with his cousin Eric Thompson, who wore the number as a high school football player in Texas before passing away.
Crowder will continue wearing no. 99 with the Bucks throughout the 2023-2024 campaign, as he signed a one-year deal to return to the team this summer.
- Oscar Robertson (no. 1), Junior Bridgeman (no. 2), Jon McGlocklin (no. 14), Brian Winters (no. 32), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (no. 33) were the first and only Bucks to ever wear their numbers before their jerseys went into Milwaukee’s rafters.
- Notable non-Hall of Famer Norm Van Lier ended his well-acclaimed career by wearing no. 4 for 38 games with the Bucks as one of only two people along with Greg Smith to wear the jersey before it became the property of Sidney Moncrief.