Breaking Down the 11 Types of NBA Nicknames, and Why Today's Need to Be Better
There are good basketball nicknames, and there are supremely lame basketball nicknames. All of us have a role in making sure that good triumphs.
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
To all but a handful of people, I've been "Dubin" my entire life. Friends, acquaintances, parents, teachers, baristas—this one is admittedly on me, but you can only get "Jerry" on your Starbucks cup so many times before you take action—have all always just last-named me. And because I've always just gone by that one name, I've long been fascinated by people who have one or more additional monikers by which they're known. My own lack of a nickname, in time, gave birth to an obsession with everyone else's.
All of which brings me to this: While I am eternally grateful to Basketball-Reference for a great many things, the nicknames listed on their web site are largely trash, and I've told them so. How many people on the planet do you think have ever called Dwyane Wade "Pookie," for example? Who knows Paul Pierce as "P-Double"? Don't they know "Linsanity" was the phenomenon surrounding Jeremy Lin's spectacular rise to prominence, not his nickname? And why are the nicknames only on the player pages and not in some sort of database? I understand these questions might matter to me more than other people, but also they really matter to me.
As the NBA's self-appointed Directed of Nickname Operations, I have taken it upon myself to compile a taxonomy of NBA nicknames. That link contains what is not quite a completely comprehensive list, but a decent start at one; I have compiled it myself and with the help of some friends, and there is a good chance I am updating it as you read this. But the study of nicknames is more than dumping "Pookie" into a spreadsheet. There is a history to this field, and honestly the history is better than the present. NBA nicknames use to be, like, a lot better.
Maybe it's because people now try too hard to come up with nicknames for certain players—think of beat writers trying to make their preferred moniker happen, or Basketball Twitter screaming about how "[Player X] needs a nickname!"—or because more and more players now try to come up with their own nicknames as a branding thing—we see you, Kobe Bryant/Dwyane Wade/Harrison Barnes—or because the SportsCenter lingo of using initials or hyphenations caught on and became easy shorthand. Whatever the reason, there's a distinct lack of originality in contemporary nicknames. We need to do better.
The way I see it, there are 11 different kinds of NBA nicknames, only some of which are actually good: Initials, Hyphenates, Abbreviated Names, Replacement Names, Body/Origin Descriptors, Game Descriptors, Self-Given Nicknames, "The" Nicknames, Pop-Culture Nicknames, Group Nicknames, and (for lack of better terminology) Original Nicknames. Let's break them down one by one.
Initials: This is basically the default version of nicknaming these days, which is a sad state of affairs. Initials can and have been used for superstars (MJ, LBJ, KD, KG, etc.), All-Stars (AI, LJ, LMA, KJ, etc.), and role players (VDN, MKG, MCW, KCP, CDR, etc.) alike. It's lazy. For all but a few players, like the ones who have three names—or more, like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who you sadly do not know as LRMAM—or Andrei Kirilenko, whose AK-47 combined his initials and uniform number and was objectively perfect. We must do better than this. Karl-Anthony Towns can't just be KAT forever.
Hyphenates: There is no earthly reason that Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, and Jason Kidd should all have basically the same nickname. T-Mac, D-Wade, D-Will, D-Rose, J-Kidd? Ugh. I blame C-Webb. It should be noted that some hyphenates, like Z-Bo and Q-Pon, do actually work, but the rest are practically begging for people to get more creative.
Abbreviated Names: This is definitely the most popular kind of nickname, and for good reason. It still immediately conjures up the player, but it's just easier to say than his real name. Why call the two-time reigning MVP Stephen, when Steph is much easier? Who wants to say Shaquille or Carmelo when Shaq and Melo are sitting right there? Zo, Sheed, Toine, Dame, Pip, Peja, Spree, Cooz, Nique, Spoon, Dice, McBob, Mash, Mase, GOOGS—these are not just good nicknames; they're also fun to say. You can (almost) never go wrong with an abbreviated name. Almost. Sometimes you wind up with something like Kandi Man, which becomes easy to parody. "The Kandi Man Can't" is just sitting right there.
Replacement Names: You know how this works. A child gets a nickname growing up, and it sticks. He becomes an NBA player and almost nobody realizes that the name they know him by isn't his actual name (or if they do, they don't use his real first name anyway). Penny Hardaway, Spud Webb, Reds Holzman and Auerbach, Popeye Jones, Doc Rivers, Muggsy Bogues, Speedy Claxton, Tiny Archibald, Satch Sanders, Moochie Norris, Fat Lever, Campy Russell, Tree Rollins, Bimbo Coles, and the immortal Smush Parker are all terrific examples. This kind of thing rarely happens anymore, though, unless you count Jimmer Fredette. Which I don't. Why has this kind of nickname fallen off? Can we just agree to blame the childhood friends of future NBA players, or is that unfair?
Body/Origin Descriptors: There used to be some pretty creative nicknames of this variety: the Hick from French Lick, the Round Mound of Rebound, Wilt the Stilt, the Big Fundamental. There's an entire subphylum of Shaq nicknames built around the word Big—Big Aristotle, Big Shaqtus, Big Shamrock, Big Daddy, and so on. The improved technology and training regimens available to players these days has yielded fewer players of outwardly distinctive body types, though, so it's somewhat tougher to come up with shape-related nicknames for players coming into the league. Nowadays, it's more about working the country the player hails from into the mix. Greek Freak, Big Daddy Canada, and Three 6 Latvia (the latter admittedly only used by an elite cadre of Knicks fans for Kristaps Porzingis) are good shit, but other post-2000s descriptors like Haitian Sensation and Brazilian Blur are too easy. This is America and we should still be able to come up with stuff like Zeke from Cabin Creek and the Enormous Mormon.
Game Descriptors: My tolerance for this type of nickname varies. Stacey "Plastic Man" Augmon is perfect and I wouldn't mind if it were reused on a different player every 20 years or so. Junkyard Dog was perfect for Jerome Williams, and Iso Joe could not possibly fit Joe Johnson better. Clyde the Glide, Nick the Quick, Thunder Dan, Pitchin' Paul, Air Canada, Chocolate Thunder, the Grindfather, and even J.R. Swish all range from "pretty good" to "very good." You can miss me with any and all variations of "Big ____," though. That goes for Mr. Big Shot, Big Shot Bob or Rob, Big Game James, and whatever else in that vein is out there. There is opportunity here to come up with some really inventive stuff. Even something like Lillard Time, which isn't so much a nickname as just a description of what happens when Damian Lillard takes over crunch time of any given game, is so much better than "Big Shot" or "Big Game" or "Big Time" anything.
Self-Given Nicknames: There is no way around this: You. Do. Not. Get. To. Choose. Your. Own. Nickname. Nicknames are bestowed upon you, and that's it. So fuck Black Mamba. Fuck Black Falcon. Fuck Way of Wade and Swaggy P and definitely fuck The Servant, which Kevin Durant tried to make happen when he didn't like the (very good) nickname the internet briefly gave him (more on that later). Self-given nicknames are straight-up garbage and should never be used. The exception here is "the Kobe Stopper," because Ruben Patterson is a legend. Respect.
"The" Nicknames: This is a mixed bag. There have been a whole lot of really good "the" nicknames: the Answer, the Mailman, the Glove, The Dream, The Admiral, The Worm, The Matrix, and arguably the best nickname ever, The Truth. But there have also been some really shitty ones: The Jet, The Big O, The Chosen One, The Big Ticket (and The Kid), The Machine, and The Brow. When you give someone a "the" nickname, they damn well better actually be THE [whatever you're using]. There's obviously more than one captain, so just don't call a guy The Captain. As definitely don't name a guy Il Mago—that's Italian for "The Magician" and was used to refer to Andrea Bargnani—if his only magic power is making his team worse.
Pop-Culture Nicknames: These can be actually taken from popular culture, like Skywalker, Mighty Mouse, Bad News Barnes, X-Man, Super Mario, Chef Curry, or Sideshow Bob. They can also arise when a player wades into popular culture, as in Larry Johnson's nickname of Grandmama, which was the result of some weird commercials in which Larry Johnson dressed up as an elderly woman who dunks. Ray Allen played a character named Jesus Shuttlesworth in a Spike Lee movie; interns attached latex old-guy makeup to Kyrie Irving until he was Uncle Drew. The best of these nicknames, though, happen organically. Basketball Twitter calls Nik Stauskas "Sauce Castillo" because the closed captioning on a Kings game got messed up one night. There is no compelling reason for Stauskas to even have a nickname, so this says something about the passion involved here. The important thing with pop-culture nicknames, as with all other types, is not to force it. You don't get to have Kristaps become Godzingis just because you say it a lot. Trust me on this. I tried to make Vucci Mane happen for Nikola Vucevic and I know it will never work.
Group Nicknames: These most often come about when a team captures the public consciousness for a distinctive reason. Think of the Bad Boys Pistons, the Showtime Lakers, the Jail Blazers, or the Grit N' Grind Grizzlies. They can also apply to a smaller group of players, like Run T-M-C, the Twin Towers, the Splash or Stache Brothers, the Death Lineup (not the "Uh-Oh Lineup," the name they tried to adopt for themselves; see "Self-Given Nicknames"), Lob City, the Rolls Royce Backcourt, or the Flying Death Machine. When one of these catches on, it's usually because it's good enough to be worthy of the group it describes. With the exception of every good bench unit in NBA history adopting the moniker "The Bench Mob," basically all of these are good. I'm very excited to see what nickname sticks for the new-age Death Lineup featuring Kevin Durant in the role of Much Better Harrison Barnes.
Original Nicknames: The Holy Grail. This is what we need to get back to. Nicknames should arise organically, catch on, and then stick. Larry Legend, Magic, Iceman, Dr. J, Reign Man, Born Ready, White Chocolate, Tuff Juice, Dollar Bill, Boogie, Agent Zero, Psycho T—these nicknames are blessings, every one of them. A couple years ago, we almost had one of the most perfect nicknames to ever arise: Kevin Durant was going to be Slim Reaper. There was an amazing photoshop and everything. Then KD shot it down and seriously tried to get people to call him The Servant. It remains the weakest move Durant has ever made, but he has moved on and so must we all. We cannot afford to be discouraged. The work of saving NBA nicknames is simply too important.
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