The Story Behind Michael Jordan's Stolen NBA Jersey

There is a mystery surrounding the Hall of Fame career of Michael Jordan. No, not the one about allegedly playing baseball to cover up a secret suspension from the NBA for gambling (via Bleacher Report), although that one does raise eyebrows. No, this mystery occurred happened several years earlier.

Jordan's Chicago Bulls were on the road and visiting central Florida to take on the Orlando Magic for a Valentine's Day matchup in 1990. As Yahoo Sports points out, in 1990, the Jordan-era Bulls weren't regarded as the dynasty that they went on to become. At the same time Jordan himself, while known to be one of the league's best players and biggest names, hadn't achieved the icon status he did through the rest of the decade.

The same can be said for his No. 23. It's a jersey number synonymous with Michael Jordan, but it hadn't reached that status yet on February 14, 1990. But it still would've looked weird to see Jordan trot out onto the court wearing a No. 12 jersey without his name across the back.

Jordan's jersey disappeared before the game

The 1989-90 NBA season was the Magic's inaugural season in the league, and in those days, they played their games at Orlando Arena (later known as Amway Arena), which was brand new when the team entered the league but was torn down in 2012 (via Insider). This was Jordan and the Bulls' second trip to Orlando that season and the fourth of five meetings between the two clubs, per Basketball Reference. The Bulls had won both games in Chicago while the Magic had managed to eke out a 110-109 win in the game in Orlando on December 20, 1989.

At 5:30 p.m. a locker room attendant laid Jordan's now-iconic No. 23 in front of his stall in the visiting locker room, but when the Bulls started to trickle into the room just 15 minutes later, there was no sign of Jordan's jersey. This could be seen as a minor inconvenience, but Jordan was already known as a very superstitious player, who famously wore his practice shorts from his days at the University of North Carolina under his NBA uniform (via Andscape).

"That has never happened to me before. It's pretty irritating because you're accustomed to certain things and you don't like to have things misplaced," Jordan told the Orlando Sentinel before the game that day.

The show must go on

In addition to being superstitious, Jordan is also known for being ultra-competitive (per Insider), so it would take more than a stolen jersey to keep him off the court. However, back then, teams didn't usually travel with backup, duplicate jerseys, and with the jersey vanishing so close to the start of the game, there wasn't any time for the team to make or run out to any sporting goods store and grab a No. 23 Bulls jersey. According to Yahoo Sports, they did comb through the Orlando Arena stands searching for one that might fit Jordan, but had no luck finding one.

However, they were able to wrangle up an extra jersey, only it was No. 12. It had to do, so Jordan took the court in the second of three numbers he wore during his NBA career (after his brief first retirement/foray into baseball, he wore No 45, per Basketball Reference). The Bulls wound up losing the game in overtime by a score of 135-129. Jordan certainly didn't seem rattled by having a different number on his jersey as he sank 21 field goals on 43 attempts and finished the game with 49 points, per Basketball Reference. But once the buzzer sounded and the game ended, it was time to try and figure out who had stolen the jersey,

The search for the missing jersey

Rodney "Sid" Powell was the equipment manager and director of team operations at the time. Powell told Yahoo Sports that suspicion immediately turned to Orlando Magic team personnel who had access to the locker room from the time the jersey was laid out until the time the players arrived 15 minutes later. However, Powell said that the door to the locker room had been dead-bolted since the Bulls had their morning shoot-around earlier in the day.

On the other hand, Sam Smith, a sportswriter and author of the book "The Jordan Rules," said that locker room security wasn't very tight back then. "We always assumed it was just some clubhouse worker," Smith told Yahoo Sports. "Back then the locker rooms were open to everyone. Celebrities were always in there pregame and postgame getting autographs from Jordan. I remember refs at times getting autographs from him pregame. It was another time."

According to Basketball Reference, the Bulls' next game was two days later back in Chicago, so Jordan was able to wear his white home threads, which hadn't been stolen. By the time the Bulls were back on the road for a February 18 game in Milwaukee, they had gotten a replacement red jersey with Jordan's proper No. 23 and his name across the back.

Mystery solved?

The mystery of the stolen jersey was eventually solved — kind of. Powell told Yahoo Sports that the jersey was taken by someone who worked in the arena, specifically a member of the Orlando Arena security team, only they stole it in a way that was anything but conventional.

"The security member tried to come through the ceiling after the gameday shoot-around in the morning. They were successful in getting to the jersey and must have planned on leaving the jersey in the ceiling for awhile to come and retrieve at a later date," Powell revealed.

Powell went on to say that the person who stole the jersey planned on keeping it and that the Magic recovered it and shipped it back the Windy City. However, members of the Bulls organization who were with the team when all of this happened have no recollection of ever receiving it, meaning that while the circumstances of the theft may be known, the jersey's current whereabouts are not.

The strange legacy of No. 12

According to the late Bulls broadcaster Red Kerr (via Yahoo Sports), Jordan walked off the court on the night of February 14, 1990 after the overtime loss in Orlando, whipped off his temporary jersey, and announced that he would "never wear this again." Jordan was true to his word. Furthermore, No. 12 wasn't worn by any Bull for another decade. The next player to wear it was Matt Maloney, who brought it back to the Bulls lineup during the 1999-00 season (via the Chicago Tribune). At that point, Jordan was in the midst of his second retirement and had his days in a Bulls jersey behind him, per Basketball Reference.

Strangely, despite wearing it in just one game, some fans have latched on to the Michael Jordan No. 12 micro-era. The official Chicago Bulls team shop currently sells replica No. 12 Chicago Bulls jerseys — without a name on the back, just like Jordan's was on the only time he ever wore the number — for $300.