A few years ago — I no longer recall exactly when — I became aware of a Twitter account that was diligently chronicling every single new NBA uniform number assignment. If a player was traded, signed, called up from the D League, or whatever, this Twitter account — @EtienneCatalan — reported on the player’s new uni number and also provided a mock-up of how the back of the player’s new jersey would look:
This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered a Twitter account devoted to a league’s uni numbers — there are similar accounts devoted to MLB numbers and NHL numbers. What made the NBA-centric account so interesting, at least to me, was that it was run by a young fan in France — a seemingly unlikely character for this type of obsessive pursuit.
That fan is named Etienne Catalan. One thing I really like about him is that he’s scrupulous about getting design details right in his jersey mock-ups. For example, with the NBA using a diamond-themed version of its logo on jerseys and shorts for the 2021-22 season (part of the league’s 75th-anniversary celebration), Catalan recently added a diamond effect to the little NBA logo that appears in each of his mock-ups. It’s so small that the diamond pattern is hard to see, but it’s there, as is the little championship tab indicating how many NBA titles the team has won:
With the start of the NBA season approaching and lots of roster moves being announced, Catalan has been busily documenting the flurry of new uni numbers. I thought it would be interesting to learn more about he ended up as the NBA’s premier uni-numerologist, and I knew his English was at least serviceable because we had emailed a few times, so I asked if I could interview him via Zoom.
Here’s a transcript of our recent conversation, edited for length and clarity. Catalan’s English is excellent (certainly better than my non-existent French!), but like many people speaking a second language, he occasionally uses atypical phrasing. I left most of that intact, just so you can get more of the flavor of our discussion.
Uni Watch: First, tell me a little bit about yourself. How old are you, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
Etienne Catalan: I’m about to turn 26, I’ve lived in Paris for almost two years, and I’m the digital communications manager for an agency that represents professional athletes — mostly tennis players.
UW: You’re a big NBA fan, obviously. How did that start for you?
EC: Growing up, I was a huge soccer fan. But then some friends of our family travelled to Chicago, and they brought me a Bulls snapback [cap] when they came back. I was probably around 10 or 11 at the time, so I didn’t really care. Internet was not very accessible for me at the time, so NBA was nowhere for me. But as I got older, I started to watch more and more basketball on the internet and try to interest myself into basketball more. But which teams should I support? And I was like, “Oh yeah, I remember someone brought me this hat from Chicago. So now I have, well, a good reason to be a fan of Chicago.”
And the funny thing is, most of my friends were saying, “Oh, you just like Chicago because of Michael Jordan.” But at that time, I didn’t even know who was Michael Jordan, actually!
UW: Is it common for people in France to follow the NBA?
EC: It’s growing, and really fast. You probably know, but there is more and more French NBA players right now. And successful ones. So yeah, basketball is becoming a big sport in France, even though the local league not really famous here, but it’s starting to grow.
UW: What led you to get interested specifically in NBA uniform numbers, and when did you start posting about them on Twitter?
EC: In 2014 I had the chance to do an internship in New York City for a couple of months. At that time in New York, it was the NBA Draft, and there were, like, autograph shows that you could go to at Modell’s and places like that, where you could meet players and have them sign some stuff.
Around that time, I saw a guy on Tumblr designing NBA jerseys and things like that. And I got really inspired by that — I was like, “Oh, that’s a good way to create something.” So I hop on Illustrator or Photoshop, try to design a few things, and see how it comes out.
UW: You mean you were designing jersey mock-ups, like the ones you saw on Tumblr, and printing them out so the players could sign them?
EC: Yes, just printing them on paper for them to sign. I try to reproduce, for example, Indiana University jersey, Oklahoma State, some of the guys that were going to be drafted. And so I went to the events, and every guy that signed their jerseys are like, “Oh, did you make that? That’s pretty cool.” They were having really nice comments about it. I really like that, so I thought I should keep going.
[Catalan doesn’t currently have access to those early autographed mock-ups — they're stored somewhere at his parents’ house — but since then he has attended NBA games and events both in Europe and in America, and has brought along custom-designed printouts for players to sign. Here's one for Boris Diaw, and I’ll add a few more throughout the interview transcript. — PL]
UW: So that’s how you started creating jersey mock-ups?
EC: Yeah. I wasn’t really that good at that time on Illustrator and Photoshop. But with time, my skills improved. I was doing better on the softwares, and I thought, “Maybe I can share it out to people on Twitter,” or anywhere. At first I wanted to design every NBA jersey, the back of the jerseys, and then create a kind of Wikipedia page where you could find every NBA player with their jerseys on that page.
UW: When was that?
EC: Probably three, four years ago.
UW: Did you actually care about uniform numbers that much before you started tweeting about them?
EC: Yes, I also love talking about numbers on the jerseys, because I don’t know why. I think the reason I fell in love with basketball and the NBA was the aesthetic of the game — the jerseys and what they represent. The thing that that I love in U.S. sports — even though now it’s starting to kind of fall apart — is that you don’t have ads on the jerseys. Here in France, for example, the jerseys are super-ugly, full of ads that are, well, I don’t have really words to describe them. They’re really, really badly integrated into the jerseys.
And the thing also that got me really interested in numbers is that in the U.S. sports, you retire numbers, so they have a history. That makes a lot of sense to me, because you can remember players that mark the history of that club or that franchise. I think that we should do that also in Europe, but it’s complicated because in the U.S. sport, you can use any numbers from zero or double-zero to 99.
UW: Oh, you mean because in soccer the numbers are assigned by position.
EC: Yes. In soccer, there is a No. 10 and he plays in the midfield. But in the NBA, No. 10 can be a point guard, or a center, it doesn’t matter. So the NBA numbers are more, I would say, owned by the players than by the position of the game. I like that. And sometimes there are good stories for why the player wears the number — like Damian Lillard, from the Blazers, wears No. 0, because it’s the O in Oakland, where he was born. Makes a lot of sense.
My favorite favorite French player, Evan Fournier, wore No. 94 for the Celtics and before that for Denver. And people were saying, “What a lame number! Who wears 94?” But 94 is the postal code of the region in France where he was born, so it makes a lot of sense. I like the story. [Fournier will be wearing No. 13 this season with the Knicks. — PL]
UW: How do you gather the uniform number information that you end up tweeting about? Like, do you just follow the social media accounts of all the teams and wait for them to announce when a player has been assigned a certain number?
EC: A lot of people ask me that question. I would say that I have multiple options to find the information. The most common one would be the Twitter — I use TweetDeck, and I have many, many columns of information, like accounts that I know that could somehow provide that information. And I have a lot of tweet notifications to not miss and stuff like that. But as I got more followers, the really funny thing is that now people are DM-ing me the information!
UW: So they’re telling you instead of waiting for you to tell them?
EC: Yes. I have one good story where an agent for an NBA player actually send me the information.
UW: Before it had been announced publicly by the team?
EC: Yeah, exactly. It was about John Jenkins, who is not a famous player. And this guy was like, “John Jenkins is gonna wear 10 with the Knicks — tweet it!” And I’m like, “What’s your source?” You know, I don’t want to create fake news. And he’s like, “Bro, I’m his agent!” I say, “Can you prove it?” And he actually sent me screenshots of his discussion with the player. [Jenkins actually wore No. 30 with the Knicks, not No. 10 (which is retired for Walt Frazier), so Catalan apparently mis-remembered the number that the agent mentioned. My thanks to reader/commenter Jeff Sak for pointing this out. — PL]
The funny thing is, some players actually DM me as well and tell me that they’re going to wear that number. It happened this summer with [Raptors small forward] Sam Dekker, who I loved when he was in college at Wisconsin. He told me, “I’m gonna wear No. 8 [for Toronto], and you can tweet it if you want.” So I was like, “No way!”
So when they do that, I design the jersey and I send it to them, in case they want to tweet it for themselves, or if they want to create an Instagram post or something like that. And then I tweet it to my followers. There’s one guy — a French player, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot [now with the Hawks] — he’s told me twice in two years, “Yeah, I’m gonna wear this number,” and he’s actually using my design as his Twitter profile picture.
UW: When you design a jersey for a tweet, sometimes you use the team’s white or Association jersey, sometimes you use the colored Icon jersey, and so on. How do you decide which jersey to use for each team?
EC: It just goes with the flow, whatever mood I’m in. So one day I might do the Celtics in green, and another day I might show them in white. There is no schedule or system, I would say. But if I’m doing a bunch of posts for different players on the same team in the same day, I use the same jersey that day.
UW: Do certain teams have number fonts that you particularly enjoy working with when you make the designs?
EC: That’s a really interesting question. Let me think. Detroit’s number font grew on me — I was not like a big fan at first. Milwaukee, too — that one grew on me. Some that I don’t like are the Spurs, Memphis, Indiana. I’m not a big fan at all of the number font for Orlando — horrible.
UW: When you watch an NBA game, do you fixate on the uniform numbers?
EC: Always. That’s actually a problem, because every time I watch a game with some friends, if a benchwarmer comes in — someone like [Heat shooting guard] Max Strus — and I know right away it’s Max Strus, Miami Heat, No. 31, and everyone else is like, “Who the fuck is Max Strus?” So my friends think I’m crazy.
UW: When you announce a new number, you always tag the player with his Twitter handle. Have you ever come across a player who isn’t on Twitter?
EC: Yeah, quite a few of them. I was surprised, because of how famous they can be. But as I also work in the digital environments in sports, I’m actually not surprised as well, because now Instagram is the network. And sometimes rookies that are really young, like 18, 19, sometimes they don’t really care about Twitter. The thing that probably surprised me more is that some of the players are not verified.
UW: You mentioned earlier how you have all these tabs open on TweetDeck, and all these alerts and notifications and people DM-ing you and so on. Despite having all these systems in place, have you ever just missed a uniform number announcement, and is that, like, your biggest nightmare?
EC: I would say that would be my biggest nightmare like two years ago. But now it’s not. My life, from a personal standpoint, has changed a bit, so I don’t have much time to, you know, be on the computer all night trying to be on the lookout for any news about numbers. But some of my followers send me tons of DMs, letting me know if a number has been announced, “Hey, you missed this,” and I’m like, “Guys, don’t worry, I saw it, I’ll get to it in 20 minutes.” I mean, I can’t blame them — honestly, I would do the same, probably.
Also I have to be sure the information is correct. I’d rather be right than be first. The thing that I love to add with my tweet is the jersey design, so you don’t just know the number, but you know how it will look.
UW: Last question: If you could be an NBA player, which team would you play for and which number would you wear?
EC: I’ll stick with the Bulls, because that’s my first love. And I would probably wear No. 14, because I was born on Oct. 14. Sorry, that’s not very original.
UW: Don’t apologize — that’s a perfectly good reason!
And there you have it. If you’re into uniform numbers, I strongly recommend Catalan’s Twitter feed — good stuff.
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A programming note: I will not have a Bulletin article next week, but I’ll be back here the week after that, on either Oct. 14 or 15. Meanwhile, you can see my daily uni writing on the Uni Watch blog.
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.