Yesterday, I wondered in my Shaq post what number he would wear in Cleveland. Briefly, a photoshopped image of Shaq in a No. 32 jersey appeared on Cavs.com, but it was quickly replaced by the same image, with the jersey number blanked out.
Then, today, O’Neal appeared on the roster on the Cavs web site for the first time, but sharing the same No. 32 as forward Joe Smith. That is still the case online, but the Cavaliers confirmed today that O’Neal will wear No. 33 -- the number he wore at LSU and in high school.
Why didn’t O’Neal choose No. 33 when he came into the NBA? Well, the Magic already had a No. 33, journeyman forward Terry Catledge, and he didn’t want to give up the number. Shaq settled for No. 32 and Catledge kept the number Shaq had been most associated with. This led to a very funny “controversy” surrounding Catledge’s Upper Deck basketball card that year, which used a rare picture of him with a shaved head. People claimed the card actually showed Shaq from a preseason game, as a way of getting around Shaq’s exclusivity deal with Classic Cards (Upper Deck famously released a redemption card for Shaq that season). Eventually the “mystery” behind the card was solved (contextual clues pointed to the picture being about 2 years old), the card’s value plummeted, and plenty of Shaq cards with him wearing No. 32 came out.
Shaq then had to give up No. 32 when he went to the Lakers, who’d retired No. 32 (for Magic Johnson) AND No. 33 (for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), leading Shaq to end up as No. 34 for the most successful period of his career.
When he got to Miami, all three numbers were “available”, but No. 33 was essentially off-limits, having been worn by Alonzo Mourning (who ended up re-joining the team that season anyway), so Shaq chose 32 over 34. He was stuck with 32 when he went to Phoenix, with Grant Hill wearing No. 33, and No. 34 retired for Charles Barkley.