‘More than just a number’: What the No. 33 jersey means to Aijha Blackwell

Blackwell’s father wore the number as a football player at Missouri.

Aijha Blackwell thought she was late for a meeting.

The Missouri basketball freshman had been pulled aside for an interview after a team practice. When she entered the locker room after, all her teammates sat in front of their lockers. Blackwell sat down in front of her own, ready for the meeting to begin.

She didn’t notice what was hanging behind her.

One teammate pointed over her shoulder. Blackwell turned around to find a gold jersey with her name and the number 33 on it. The tears began to fall as her teammates hugged her.

“I turned around and it was there,” said Blackwell. “It was just amazing … It was a good feeling.”

Needless to say, No. 33 is not just a form of on-the-court identification for Blackwell. It’s part of her identity, part of her childhood and part of her family.

Blackwell’s father, Ernest, wore the number as a running back for Missouri from 1994-97, rushing for more than 1,300 yards before the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft.

Ernest died in 2004 as a result of a struggle with police after he allegedly shot his 9-year-old step-daughter and beat a 14-year-old neighbor and her mother. Three-year-old Aijha was in the family’s St. Louis house at the time.

As Blackwell developed into Missouri’s top basketball prospect and the nation’s No. 9 recruit, the number’s importance remained. She wore her father’s football jersey when she formally committed to the Tigers.

“When we recruited Aijha, we knew that number meant a lot to her,” coach Robin Pingeton said. It wasn’t so simple to let Blackwell wear it, though.

Joni Davis wore the number 33 jersey while she played with Missouri from 1982-85 and set a career scoring record that stood until last year. The number was retired not long after Davis graduated, which meant Blackwell would need to settle for number 32 — unless Davis would agree to let another player wear her number.

It turned out Davis was easily convinced.

“Before I could even finish the sentence, she [said], ‘Yes, absolutely,’” Pingeton said.

No. 33 would return to the court for Missouri, and it would be Blackwell’s.

“It brings me to tears, just thinking about it,” Blackwell said. “Joni Davis, she’s amazing. I’m just appreciative of her letting me wear that number. It means a lot. It’s more than a number.”

Davis is now an enthusiastic supporter of Blackwell.

“I felt so proud to be a part of this,” she said.

Of course, the number comes with some expectations from Davis. Luckily for Blackwell, she should have no issue meeting them.

“This is your opportunity to bring this number to life,” Davis said in a video message to Blackwell. “Make it your own.”

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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