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.
Jersey History series: Nos. 1-5 | Nos. 6-10 | Nos. 11-15
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. 21
Best player: Falcons CB Deion Sanders (1989-93), Hawks SF Dominique Wilkins (1982-94)
Honorable mentions: Falcons CB DeAngelo Hall (2004-7), Falcons CB Desmond Trufant (2013-19), C Ray Ferraro (1999-02),
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 21: 29
Summary: How am I possibly supposed to choose between Prime Time and The Human Highlight Film? The answer is, I can’t. So, they are our first tie and both hold the top spot for No. 21. Although he only played for the Falcons for five seasons, Deion Sanders left an indelible mark on the city. As the leader of the “2 Legit 2 Quit” Falcons, Sanders was a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. He recorded a stunning 24 interceptions and over 4,000 return yards with five return touchdowns during his time with the Falcons, giving the organization a legitimate superstar.
I mean, what else can I say about Sanders? You all know how special he was.
Dominique Wilkins spent much longer playing for Atlanta, and he was just as spectacular. During his 12 seasons with the Hawks, Wilkins averaged 26.4 points per game and seven rebounds. He led the NBA with 30.3 points per game during the 1985-86 season, which also began his run of nine-straight All-Star Game appearances. Known for his incredible dunks and mesmerizing battle against Larry Bird in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals, Wilkins remains the best player in Hawks history and one of the NBA’s greatest playmakers.
Both are in their respective leagues’ Halls of Fame, and for good reason.
Jersey No. 22
Best player: Falcons CB Rolland Lawrence (1973-80)
Honorable mentions: Hawks SF John Drew (1974-82), Braves OF Jason Heyward (2010-14), Falcons S Keanu Neal (2016-2020), Dream G Armintie Herrington (2009-13), Falcons CB Asante Samuel (2012-13)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 22: 73
Summary: Rolland Lawrence is a player who's been a little bit forgotten, but he absolutely shouldn’t be. He intercepted a franchise-record 39 passes during his eight seasons and also recovered 13 fumbles, accounting for 52 takeaways during his career. Lawrence was named a First-Team All-Pro in 1977 when he forced a total of 10 turnovers and ended the year with a Pro Football Reference approximate value of 24, which is the highest single-season approximate value for any Falcons player in franchise history. Lawrence remains one of the greatest play-making corners Atlanta has ever seen.
There’s a pretty good crop of players behind Lawrence to have worn No. 22 over the years. John Drew, a two-time All-Star, spent eight seasons with the Hawks and averaged 21.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Jason Heyward never quite lived up to his immense billing for the Braves, but few players will ever be able to replicate the magic he provided during his rookie season. Keanu Neal and Asante Samuel were both extremely unique players for the Falcons who provided a handful of memorable plays, and Armintie Herrington did the same for the Dream.
Jersey No. 23
Best player: Hawks SF Lou Hudson (1968-77)
Honorable mentions: Braves RF David Justice (1989-96), Falcons CB Bobby Butler (1981-92), Falcons CB Robert Alford (2013-18), Thrashers C Jim Slater (2005-11)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 23: 53
Summary: This is another stacked number. You could make a very compelling argument for either Lou Hudson, David Justice or Bobby Butler in the top spot. Ultimately, the Hawks ended up retiring the No. 23 because of Hudson’s play, so that gives him the slight edge over the other two greats. Hudson began his career with the St. Louis Hawks, but the majority and best parts of his career came in Atlanta. While playing in Atlanta, Hudson averaged 23.2 points, 5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game en route to earning six-straight All-Star appearances. Hudson won two playoff series during his time in Atlanta and was the city’s first big basketball star.
Justice’s contributions to the Braves’ success in the 90s cannot be overlooked. He was an All-Star in both 1993 and 1994 and was named Rookie of the Year during his first full season in 1990. A steady hitter who could also provide a pop of power, Justice finished his time in Atlanta batting .275 with 160 home runs and 522 RBIs. Butler was a lifer with the Falcons, starting as a first-round draft pick in the 1981 NFL Draft and ultimately playing in 169 games over 12 seasons. Like many of the other cornerbacks in this series, Butler was a playmaker on defense for Atlanta and ended his career with 27 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries. This is a real toss-up, and there are no wrong answers.
Jersey No. 24
Best player: Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (2014-19)
Honorable mentions: United MF Julian Gressel (2017-19), Braves OF Deion Sanders (1991-94)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 24: 93
Summary: A ton of players have worn No. 24 over the years, but not too many have been wildly successful. Although Devonta Freeman’s final seasons in Atlanta weren’t spectacular, his peak was very much noteworthy. Freeman had three straight 1,000-yard seasons in combined rushing and receiving yards, which is a fitting way to describe his value to Atlanta’s offense. He reached nearly 6,000 total yards during his six seasons with the Falcons and scored a combined 43 touchdowns. Freeman may not go down as one of the very best running backs in Falcons history, but he is very much in the second tier.
Julian Gressel’s role during Atlanta United’s best seasons shouldn’t be overlooked. He was a big part of the starting lineup and a solid scoring midfielder, who racked up 15 goals during his three seasons. A fan-favorite because of the effort he gave, Gressel brought Mercedes-Benz Stadium to its feet many times over. Deion Sanders earns an honorable mention not only because he’s Prime Time, but because he was a fairly decent player for four seasons. Also, after his rookie season, A.J. Terrell could seriously join this list in a few years.
Jersey No. 25
Best player: Braves OF Andruw Jones (1996-07)
Honorable mentions: Falcons DB Scott Case (1984-94), Hawks PG Doc Rivers (1983-91), Thrashers D Andy Sutton (2001-07)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 25: 65
Summary: The “other” Jones, Andruw Jones was anything but second fiddle during his time in Atlanta. A second bash brother alongside Chipper, Jones crushed home runs as easily as he robbed them for the Braves – and he looked so cool doing it. When I first began playing fantasy baseball, I made sure Jones was the very first overall pick in our league, and I never regretted it. A five-time All-Star and the winner of 10 Gold Gloves, Jones was always among the best offensive and defensive players in Major League Baseball. He finished his 12 seasons in Atlanta with a .263 batting average, 368 home runs and 1,117 RBIs.
This is a pretty strong list of “also-rans”. Scott Case played 11 years for the Falcons and made the Pro Bowl in 1988 when he intercepted 10 passes in a single season. He ended his time in Atlanta with 30 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries while nearly totaling 1,000 tackles, ranking as one of the biggest hitters in franchise history. Case had multiple interceptions in eight of his 11 seasons with the Falcons.
Long before he was coaching, Doc Rivers was playing point guard for the Hawks. Sharing the court with Dominique Wilkins, Rivers set up the All-Star dunker with excellent passes and also proved to be a crafty scorer in his own right. A one-time All-Star himself, Rivers averaged 13 points and seven assists during his eight seasons with Atlanta.
Next up: Nos. 26-30
Who is the best player to wear a number 21-25
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