What is the best jersey number in Atlanta sports history?
That simple question led me on a journey through time to find the answer. Icons can come packaged in every feasible way. Whether it be in a crisp clean single digit like No. 7 (Michael Vick), a classic like No. 21 (Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins) or a relatively unassuming numeral like 31 (Greg Maddux), each of these numbers means something in Atlanta sports lore.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be unveiling my findings five jersey numbers at a time. I looked at each of the major sports franchises in the city’s history, from the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Dream, United, Thrashers and Flames, all in order to catalog the definitive list of jersey numbers and whose worn them.
Before we get to the list, a few rules: A player had to play multiple seasons in Atlanta to be considered. I did not include any player who played for a franchise while it was located in another city; they had to have played in Atlanta.
To determine value and talent, I used a value-related stat for each sport such as Wins Above Replacement (baseball) or Point Share (hockey). Sometimes, I will make a subjective call. You may disagree, but that’s the fun of all of this, right? So, feel free to debate in the comments and let’s have a fun walk down memory lane. Let’s go!
Jersey No. 31
Best player: Braves P Greg Maddux (1993-2003)
Honorable mentions: Falcons RB William Andrews (1979-86), Thrashers G Ondrej Pavelec (2007-11), Hawks PG Jason Terry (1999-2004)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 31: 37
Summary: While it’s tough to leave out possibly one of the most underrated players in Falcons history, Greg Maddux is the clear pick here. The headline pitcher during the Braves’ run as one of the premier teams in MLB history, Maddux was a true household name. Maddux won four straight Cy Young Awards, including three as a member of the Braves, and was a consistent MVP candidate. His total ERA during his 11 seasons in Atlanta was an absurd 2.63, which would be an incredible single-season result, let alone the cumulative number for over a decade. Maddux ended his time with the Braves posting a 194-88 record, and he was the Game 1 starter for Atlanta’s 1995 World Series team. As far as Atlanta sports legends go, Greg Maddux is right there at the top.
Let’s take a brief moment to shine a light on what William Andrews accomplished. Prior to sustaining a brutal knee injury that cut short his career, Andrews was among the most dominant running backs in the NFL and one of the Falcons’ early stars. He topped 1,000 total yards in each of his first five seasons before injuring his knee, headlined by his 1981 season when he ran for 1,301 yards and caught 81 passes for an additional 735 yards, totaling 2,036 combined yards from scrimmage. Andrews also scored a career-high 12 touchdowns in 1981. There are plenty of other jersey numbers where Andrews would have been the top pick, but he unfortunately ran into Maddux with No. 31.
Jersey No. 32
Best player: Falcons RB Jamal Anderson (1994-2001)
Honorable mentions: Thrashers G Kari Lehtonen (2003-09), Hawks PF Dan Roundfield (1978-84)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 32: 69
Summary: So, this is a good example of why William Andrews is underrated. Jamal Anderson is on the shortlist of memorable Falcons running backs, which for a lot of fans will be heavily based on his magical 1998 season. That year he led the NFL with 410 carries and gained 1,846 yards – a truly monumental feat. He also caught 27 passes for 319 yards, which meant he amassed 2,165 total yards.
Injuries prevented him from building on that season, unfortunately, but he did put up 1,000 yards on the ground with 382 through the air in 2000. Before the 1999 injury, he had topped 1,000 yards rushing in three consecutive seasons as the team’s lead back and was a consistent receiving threat out of the backfield and even in the slot once he took over the starting job in 1996. Anderson was the premier option for a very good Falcons team in 1998 and was a bright spot for the ‘96 and ‘97 teams, but it’s hard to not look back and feel like he could have been an all-time great if his injury luck had panned out differently.
I really debated whether or not to put Kari Lehtonen in the top spot here. The premier goalie for the Thrashers, Lehtonen developed into one of the best goalies in the NHL. He only played in Atlanta for four seasons, however, which gave Anderson the edge in my opinion. But, Lehtonen was a bright spot for a Thrashers team that actually had its fair share of quality players, even if the end results weren’t equal to the sum of the talent on the squad.
Jersey No. 33
Best player: Falcons RB Michael Turner (2008-12)
Honorable mentions: Braves OF Brian Jordan (1999-2001, 2005-06), Thrashers G Milan Hnilicka, Dream C Alison Baled (2008-11)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 33: 70
Summary: Two things appear to be true: The 30s are a haven for Falcons running backs and Thrashers goalies. Matt Ryan is deservedly credited with turning the Falcons franchise around in 2008 – something we don’t credit enough given how disastrous the 2007 season was, honestly – but Michael Turner is very much a part of that conversation. One of Thomas Dimitroff’s best free-agent signings, Turner really kicked into gear in 2008 after spending four years as LaDainian Tomlinson’s primary understudy. In five seasons with the Falcons, Turner gained 6,081 rushing yards and scored 61 touchdowns, keying multiple playoff squads. He wasn’t much of a receiver, but Turner provided the Falcons and Ryan with a consistent ground threat and should go down as one of the team’s greats.
Why didn’t prominent two-sport athletes wear the same number? That’s the question I keep asking myself with Deion Sanders and now Brian Jordan. I’ve always been fascinated by players who can play multiple sports at the highest level, but they’ve got to do a better job of branding. I’m sure Jordan will also make an appearance for his No. 40 days with the Falcons, but he was a very fun player for the Braves while donning No. 33. Random side thought: How terrifying would it be as a catcher to watch an NFL safety running at you at home plate?
Jersey No. 34
Best player: Falcons DB Ray Buchanan (1997-2003)
Honorable mentions: Braves P Kevin Millwood (1997-2002)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 34: 76
Summary: Big Play Ray was instrumental in helping the Falcons reach the Super Bowl in 1998. Buchanan had a crazy nose for the football, something the team hasn’t seen too often since. During the 1998 season, Buchanan recorded seven interceptions and finished his seven-year career in Atlanta with a whopping 30 picks. That 1998 season represented the clear high point for Buchanan, but he was a vitally important player for the franchise’s first Super Bowl run.
This is one of those numbers that hasn’t been very successful in Atlanta history. No shots at Kevin Millwood, but it’s noteworthy that he’s the second-best No. 34.
Jersey No. 35
Best player: Braves P Phil Niekro (1966-83, 1987)
Honorable mentions: Dream F Angel McCoughtry (2009-19), Falcons WR Mike Pritchard (1991-93)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 35: 22
Summary: There’s only one Atlanta Braves player to ever wear No. 35, and that is the legendary late Phil Niekro. Niekro is right alongside Hank Aaron as the best pre-90s Braves to ever suit up for the franchise. He played a whopping 21 seasons for Atlanta and finished his career with a 3.20 ERA and nearly 300 wins. The Hall of Famer was both a five-time All-Star and Gold-Glove winner and was an absolute workhorse during an era when pitchers often went the distance. He started more games than any other pitcher during the four-year stretch from 1977-80, and he led the league in complete games for three of those years. Although he preceded the trinity of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, Niekro is every bit in that conversation.
It’s a real shame that Angel McCoughtry ran up against Niekro. The best player in Dream history, McCoughtry averaged nearly 20 points per game during her decade-long run in Atlanta. The No. 1 overall pick in 2009, she has been absolutely everything the Dream could have hoped for. McCoughtry was a large reason why the Dream continued to make WNBA Finals and compete for championships, and she helped the Las Vegas Aces make the WNBA Finals in 2020. The Atlanta Dream don’t often get a ton of love in this city, but McCoughtry is one name that all ATLiens should remember.
Up Next: Nos. 36-40
Who is the best player to wear a number 31-35?
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