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Unlucky number 13 gets a bad rap in sports and life

Wilt Chamberlain was a towering sports figure who clearly didn’t suffer from triskaidekaphobia—the irrational fear of the number 13. The seven-footer donned those digits intrepidly throughout a Hall of Fame hoops career that saw him score 100 points in a single game and average more than 50 points per contest during the 1961-62 National Basketball Association season. Asked if he believed his jersey number was unlucky, Chamberlain quipped: “Yeah, for my opponents.”

Dan Marino also wore the number with distinction. Legend has it that he draped 13 over his shoulder pads for the first time while playing youth-league football, and it wasn’t by choice. His father coached the team and didn’t want to give the appearance of playing favorites, so he allowed all the other kids to have first crack at the uniform numbers. Young Dan was not a happy camper after getting stuck with 13. But after playing well while wearing it, he decided it would be his number for the rest of his career.

As was the case with Chamberlain, Marino’s 13 proved to be unlucky for his opponents as the Miami Dolphins quarterback shredded defenses for 61,361 yards and 420 touchdown passes during his stellar National Football League career.

Despite the success of superstars such as Chamberlain and Marino, most athletes avoid 13 like the plague. Numbers and superstitions have long been a part of sports, and 13 is the loneliest number of all—even though Wilt’s uniform wound up being retired by five teams he played for, including the University of Kansas, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Harlem Globetrotters.

I bring this up because just in case you haven’t checked the calendar, today is Friday the 13th,   supposedly the unluckiest day of the year. Some people won’t go to work or eat in a restaurant or travel today. They suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia. (Please don’t ask me to pronounce because I had a tough enough time spelling it.) It’s a $50 word for fear of Friday the 13th. According to one report I read, 8 percent of people throughout the world suffer from this phobia, which can result in extreme anxiety, including hyperventilation, dizziness and—in rare cases—heart attacks. Paraskevidekatriaphobes believe something terrible or evil is about to happen on this day, which is why many of them curl up in the fetal position and opt not to venture out of their homes until Saturday the 14th arrives. Fortunately, this is the only Friday the 13th on the 2016 calendar. Last year, there were three.

Thirteen has been associated with bad luck for centuries. Some Christians trace it to the Last Supper and the fact that Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, was the 13th guest at the dinner table. According to Norse mythology, the god Odin invited 11 of his closest friends to a party at his home in Valhalla, only to have the soiree crashed by Loki, the god of evil and turmoil.

Thirteen has always been an outcast, a black sheep, an ugly duckling of numbers. Perhaps it would have a better reputation had there been 13 months in a year, 13 signs of the zodiac and 13 gods of Olympus, instead of 12. About the only time 13 seems to be celebrated is when it’s part of a baker’s dozen and you get that extra doughnut or bagel.

Western culture’s fear of these “cursed” digits is why most high-rise buildings, especially hotels, don’t list a 13th floor and why some cities don’t have a 13th avenue or street on their maps. They simply skip from 12 to 14, pretending that the number in between doesn’t exist. Despite the stigma, 293 major league players have worn 13, according to Baseball-Reference.com. And some, like perennial all-star shortstop Omar Vizquel, have had pretty good luck with it. Quarterback Kurt Warner went from bagging groceries to bagging NFL MVP awards wearing 13. Basketball’s Steve Nash, hockey’s Mats Sundin and soccer’s Kristine Lilly also did just fine with the number.

That’s not to say many 13s haven’t been unlucky. Perhaps no triskaidekaphiliac has been more pilloried than former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, who had the misfortune of serving up one of the most famous home runs in history—“the shot heard ’round the world” by Bobby Thomson that catapulted the New York Giants into the 1951 World Series.

Although Branca has forever been connected with that gopher pitch, he experienced a better fate than daredevil Sam Patch. On Friday, Nov. 13, 1829—only weeks after he leaped into the Niagara River at the base of Niagara Falls—Patch attempted to replicate his feat off of Rochester’s High Falls and into the Genesee River. His luck ran out as he plunged to his death.

I wore 13 while playing high school baseball and had a decent senior season as a utility infielder on a team that won its league title and made it all the way to the sectional finals. I haven’t worn the number since, but it has nothing to do with the fact we lost the championship game after making several errors. In fact, it’s become somewhat of a lucky number for moi. My first date with my wife was on Friday the 13th, and although I was a klutz and spilled some wine on the restaurant table cloth while proposing a toast, things have worked out swimmingly. Despite what the calendar says, I plan on going to work today without concern that something terrible is going to occur.

In reality, it all boils down to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe the number is unlucky, you might make it so. And if you believe the opposite, that could work in your favor. Some argue that Chamberlain’s career was unlucky because he played during an era when the Boston Celtics, led by his archrival Bill Russell, won a string of NBA titles. And some say Marino’s career is unfulfilled because he lost his only Super Bowl. I’m not buying it. We all should be so unlucky.

Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author and nationally honored sports columnist for the Rochester Business Journal. You can talk sports with him Monday-Friday from 3-7 p.m. on ESPN Rochester 95.7 FM, AM 950 or online at www.espnrochester.com.

5/13/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

One comment

  1. Just got done reading Scott’s article on the #13. I kept expecting him to say something about the Yankee fan’s favorite #13 (A-Rod) but he probably couldn’t find anything positive to say. I don’t know if Scott left him out on purpose or not but his #13 hasn’t been too lucky for us. Sad part about it is he will be part of Yankee lore if & when he breaks the “Babe’s” record for home runs. I always enjoy reading Scott’s articles. He generally has something interesting to say that breaks up my day.

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