When you see the number 23, what do you think of? Michael Jordan, right? The greatest basketball player of all time immortalized the number both with his play on the court and his branding off of it. It's inspired many an athlete even beyond basketball to don the same number in hopes of capturing even a fraction of the greatness it represents.
So, when Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting switched his number this offseason to 23, the assumption was simple: he did it because of MJ. "The Last Dance" documentary is currently airing, making it even more relevant and this was Murphy-Bunting's first chance to switch. Simple, right?
Not so fast. While it did factor into the change, it was far from the whole reason.
"I wore 23 a lot as a kid, whether it was in basketball, football, baseball," Murphy-Bunting explained. "Twenty-three had always kinda been my numbers and then I've always idolized guys like LeBron James and Michael Jordan. They're some of the greats. But as far as me personally, 23 symbolizes a lot for me [...] I have five brothers. I have two younger brothers, and three older brothers. That's pretty unique for me. It's cool for me, just to have that number 23. That's kind of my thing to them."
It isn't the first thing Murphy-Bunting has done on his jersey for his family, either. Upon entering the league, he went from Sean Bunting to Sean Murphy-Bunting, as a tribute to his mother and grandparents. For him, it represents all the sacrifices they made and help they gave him along the way. It's not something Murphy-Bunting takes lightly and now, it's something he carries with him on the back of his jersey, always.
"At the end of the day, I play for my family, and I play for the name on the front of my jersey," Murphy-Bunting said. "I rarely do things for myself, to be honest with you. Twenty-three is definitely a number that I've always wanted. I wanted it last year, obviously didn't get it, but I've got it now, and I don't really plan to ever stop wearing that number."
Channeling the greatness that 23 represents may be in the cards for Murphy-Bunting, too. Last season as a rookie, SMB was thrown into the fire, starting at both outside corner and nickel, all while still learning the intricacies of the game at the NFL level. It was enough to make anyone's head spin. But the back half of the season saw fellow rookie Jamel Dean step up and into the outside corner role along with then second-year corner Carlton Davis III. It gave Murphy-Bunting a chance to shine at nickel and further grasp the concepts within Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles' scheme.
Then it clicked.
"The difference was really just keying in and buying into everything [Bowles] was saying and that coach was doing," Murphy-Bunting said. "He had us watching film. It's one thing to watch it but it's another thing to understand it. As time went on, we started to understand more and more what the concepts were of what we were trying to do as a defense and what the concepts were that they were trying to do against us as an offense.
"I know for me specifically, when I understood being in certain defenses and where they were trying to beat us at – I could show different things, but I knew ultimately what I had to do."
The secondary especially will look to continue that momentum into this season, which will be made easier by the return of the starting front seven, according to Murphy-Bunting. When asked what the return of guys like outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett along with defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh meant, Murphy-Bunting's answer was simple: "It means interceptions."
This coming from the guy who led all rookies last season in interceptions with three. All of the impressive quarterback talent the Bucs will face this season will surely make any interception Murphy-Bunting manages to capture that much sweeter – just like that number 23.