What’s in a jersey number?
Every player has their own story for how they came to be sporting the jersey number they wear. For some, their jersey number holds incredible meaning. For others, a number is just a number, which can sometimes be a story in and of itself.
Those same circumstances hold true for this year’s Ohio State men’s basketball team as well.
“Team 124” features eight new scholarship faces, and two players — Justice Sueing and Kalen Etzler — who redshirted last year. The only returnees for the Buckeyes who played in more than two games last year are forwards Zed Key and Eugene Brown III.
It’s a team that will be building an identity well into the end of the calendar year. And part of that identity is imparted by the jersey numbers that the Buckeyes wear.
For Eugene Brown, his No. 3 jersey honors the connection between a son and a father.
“Eugene Brown the Third,” Brown said, referencing his full name and also why he chose the jersey number he did.
“I love it. I embrace it. My father is someone that I look up to, of course. So, to have his name, I’ve got to carry it with pride.”
Brown isn’t the only Buckeye honoring his dad. Redshirt freshman Kalen Etzler wears No. 24 just like his father did.
“My dad wore this number. When he was at Ashland University, he wore this number,” Etzler said. “Then as I got older, I became a huge Kobe Bryant fan, so I just always stuck with it. In high school I switched to No. 2 because one of the seniors switched to 24. I was pretty mad about that.”
Yes, it can be a pretty frustrating situation when you want to wear a number to honor a family member but a teammate got the number before you did.
Such is the case for freshman guard Roddy Gayle, Jr., who wanted to wear No. 2 because he’s a “Second” and his father Roddy Sr. is a “First.” Unfortunately for Gayle, the No. 2 was already claimed by freshman guard Bruce Thornton.
So why No. 1 as a fallback plan for Gayle?
“Because he took number two, honestly,” Gayle said, nodding at Thornton who was sitting two feet away from him at the same two-man table. “He took number two, so I’m like I’ve got to find something else. Number one looked cool to me.”
Why did Thornton get first dibs on No. 2 over Gayle? That’s probably a better question for Ohio State director of basketball relations Dave Egelhoff, but Gayle has his suspicions.
“Because Egel asked him first,” Gayle said. “Favoritism.”
Some players bargain or barter for a coveted jersey number. Others may challenge somebody to some one-on-one. Winner takes all.
Don’t expect to see that happen between Roddy Gayle and Bruce Thornton, however.
“It was already too late,” Gayle said.
Now in the age of NIL, players have some cash that they can splash around. Perhaps Thornton would be interested in selling the jersey to Gayle.
But what kind of price would we be talking about?
“A million,” Thornton said. “I ain’t trading it.”
But Thornton comes by his desire to keep the No. 2 honestly. He is honoring a family member as well.
“I wear this No. 2 because of my little brother. He plays football,” Thornton said.
Bruce’s younger brother Bryce is a 2023 defensive back prospect with offers from several SEC powers, including Alabama.
“When we played football, I used to be 7, he used to be 2,” Thornton said. “When I got here and I thought about it, I went with 2 for my little brother. I know he looks up to me and I’ve got to show him a good role model, so I roll with No. 2.”
(In a familial twist, Bryce has been sporting Bruce’s old No. 7 for a couple of years now.)
As most of the Buckeyes have found out, there are only so many numbers a basketball team can wear. The coveted numbers go quickly, and it doesn’t help that Ohio State has also retired the numbers 5 (John Havlicek), 11 (Jerry Lucas), 21 (Evan Turner), 22 (Jim Jackson), and 35 (Gary Bradds).
Freshman forward Brice Sensabaugh was hoping to end up with No. 5, but that wasn’t an option at Ohio State. Instead, he is wearing No. 10, which is a very old throwback to his childhood.
“I liked number five. That’s a number that I wore throughout my high school career,” Sensabaugh said. “I was No. 15 before because No. 5 was taken by an older guy. I like to wear No. 5, but this was the first number I ever wore as a kid. This was the number that was available. And 5 is obviously retired because of John Havlicek.”
Why is Sensabaugh drawn to the No. 5 jersey?
“It was the five things that are most important to me,” he explained. “My mother, my father, the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Those are five things to me that are super important in my life.”
Not everybody on the team has such deep meaning to their jersey choice, however.
Take junior forward Zed Key and his No. 23 jersey, for instance.
A basketball player wearing a No. 23 jersey is generally an ode to Michael Jordan or LeBron James. For Key, however, he wears No. 23 because of its proximity to his preferred number.
“I wore 21 in high school, and 21 wasn’t available, so I was like, ‘Okay, 23 is close to 21. Okay, 23 will work,’ Key explained.
Close is good enough in horseshoes, hand grenades, and Zed Key’s jersey preference.
“I don’t really care what number, as long as it’s close to 21,” he said. “It used to be 14 but you know [forward] Justice [Sueing] was here before me. I would have 14 but Justice stole that from me.”
What if Key challenged Sueing to some one-on-one for that coveted No. 14 jersey?
“No, I might as well just stick with it and not change the number now,” he relented.
Sitting next to Key was Eugene Brown, who chimed in again about his No. 3 jersey.
“Now that I’ve been wearing this, I can’t see myself wearing another number in an Ohio State uniform.”
But what if — in a total troll move — Brown challenged Sueing for the No. 14 jersey just so he could wear it in front of Key?
“Don’t do that,” Key told him. “Don’t do that.”
Zed Key and Brice Sensabaugh weren’t the only Buckeyes who wanted numbers that were retired. West Virginia transfer Sean McNeil also had to figure out a new number. Worse yet, he had to give up the number he had worn for the past three years.
“I was 22. It was retired,” McNeil explained. “Obviously, Malaki [Branham] wore it last year, but apparently he and Jim Jackson had some connection or they knew each other, so then I wanted 2. But Bruce committed way before I did, so he took that one. I was like, ‘Alright, 2 + 2 is 4, so just give me 4.’”
That’s actually a shortened version of how things actually went, McNeil later revealed.
“I wanted 22. That didn’t work out,” he said. “Then I asked for 2. Then I asked for 11, that was my junior college number. All of them were taken, so I was like, ‘What numbers are available?’”
Sometimes a number honors a legacy and sometimes it honors whatever the heck is left.
The retired jerseys aren’t the only coveted numbers out there. Kalen Etzler’s No. 24 has also been the target of some hungry eyes.
Freshman center Felix Okpara wanted the No. 24, but OSU appeased him by giving him No. 34, which is the same number as his favorite NBA player Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Freshman walk-on Colby Baumann also wanted it.
Does Etzler need to watch his back?
“I do. I do,” he deadpanned.
One could have thought that maybe the 6-foot-11 Okpara was wearing No. 34 to honor former Buckeye center Terence Dials, who is currently the team’s director of professional development.
“I didn’t even know TD was 34,” Etzler said. “They’ve got to put that thing up in the rafters then, you know what I’m saying?”
Kalen Etzler might be on to something.
After all, the best way to honor somebody with your jersey number is to leave it hanging in the rafters when your playing days are done.