Here's how to fix lame NBA nicknames

Originally Published: February 11, 2011
By Bethlehem Shoals | Special to Page 2

NBA IllustrationBrian Cardinal, Paul Pierce and Dan Gadzuric are three of the few NBA players with organic nicknames.

Historians disagree as to exactly where, and when, early man invented nicknames. Some feel it was in the cave pits of Wales, in between fighting dragons and chasing sea monkeys. Others suspect it was in Ghana, several thousand years before, in a more innocent time of hunting and gathering, long before recorded history.

One thing is for sure: It was after names got longer than one grunt. Nicknames, like all forms of technology, began as convenience. When you're on the hunt, or threatened by a wild beast, sometimes you don't have time to shout out father and clan. Soon, though, this time-saving device became a way to show familiarity, even affection. Informality, and cut-off shorts, was born.

The next great evolutionary leap came when early man, his cranium swollen with new intelligence, learned to peer into his friends' eyes and see their souls. Nicknames, while still short, expressed higher truths about the people around him. When these men became great warriors and kings, nicknames were a springboard to myth. A few months later, George "The Blind Bomber" Glamack began playing professional basketball.

Alas, a terrible thing has happened in today's NBA. Nicknames have regressed. They have retreated beyond the Bronze Age and stopped just shy of their primordial beginnings. In this year's All-Star Game, the East will start Derrick "D-Rose" Rose and Dwyane "D-Wade" Wade. Two of the sport's most dynamic players have two nicknames that might as well belong to a pair of drunken louts.

LeBron James is "Bron Bron," modeled after Ron Artest's "Ron Ron." And "Bron Bron" still gets serious competition from the totally confusing "King James" (the 17th century monarch who forced his subjects to use his translation of the Bible and is thought by some historians to have been gay) and "LBJ" (Lyndon Baines Johnson would never have passed on the last shot).

The NBA is in the middle of a crisis. One can argue that we've asked our athletes to be nondescript nice guys, and subsequently we've been rewarded with the least imaginative (or most contrived) nicknames possible. Lucky for us, there is a way home, and it doesn't involve a sermon about David Stern letting players be themselves.

The problem isn't with the players, fans, media or the league. It's that we want nicknames too badly. We jump on the first-last combo because it's available the second we learn who these kids are.

If their given names don't fit the formula, such as Amare Stoudemire or Jonas Jerebko, we hold an online contest or task a marketing firm with selecting a nickname. Last month, a Nuggets telecast offered up 10 options for speedy point guard Ty Lawson, including "Ty-Ran-Around-Us" and "Breakin' the Lawson."

Richard the Lionheart didn't get his nickname from some PR flak. He led his village into battle against the Visigoths to earn it.

Today, we must exercise patience and restraint to find our way back to what a friend of mine calls "organic nicknames." Everybody knows you can't make a nickname stick in real life unless it belongs. Why would basketball be any different?

That's why secondary players often get the most colorful nicknames these days. Reggie Evans has two: "The Collector" and "The Joker." Brian Cardinal is "The Janitor." Dan Gadzuric is "The Flying Dutchman." Sasha Vujacic is better known as "The Machine" than his given name in some quarters.

The bottom line is, in those cases, we don't care enough to force the issue. Many of us probably don't know what team those guys are on this season, but their nicknames shall echo down throughout the ages.

[+] EnlargeAllen Iverson, Paul Pierce
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesAllen "The Answer" Iverson and Paul "The Truth" Pierce, owners of two of the best nicknames in recent history, cross paths after a 2008 game.

What are the most indelible superstar nicknames of the post-Jordan era? Allen "The Answer" Iverson and Paul "The Truth" Pierce. They were simple, profound, memorable and kind of ridiculous. Did Iverson really have an answer for everything, as we were told? (Other than draining the shot clock and running an iso, of course.) Is Paul Pierce an intergalactic force that transcends time and space? It doesn't matter. The second secret of nicknames is being catchy, and catching on is more important than being correct. We didn't get to decide; we were told.

There is hope on the horizon with the next generation of stars. Blake Griffin, the hottest thing going this year, has thus far defied predictable nicknames. He's just too exciting and too intense for a flimsy moniker like "Quake Griffin." It helps that "BG" already belongs to a Cash Money rapper whose accomplishments are the timeless hit "Bling Bling" and admitting to shooting up a ton of heroin (although Nuggets center Chris Andersen is just fine with "Birdman," which he shares with Cash Money head honcho Baby). Kevin Durant is simply too eccentric a player for a simple "KD," a template set by Iverson's secondary, street-wise nickname, "AI." "Durantula," which always makes me think of Dracula's head on a giant hairy spider, hasn't made it beyond the Internet. John Wall? His nickname will come out of the blue, since the name itself sounds so damn iconic.

We've come a long way since nicknames helped us warn Glorzog of Burgelbaum, Son of Snortz, that a mammoth was about to gore his earthly hide. One thing hasn't changed, though. Like woolly mammoths, nicknames can't be controlled or commanded. When they happen, they happen. If they do, we're lucky. If not, we scavenge for roots and berries, and ask G-Zog to spot us a bone spoon's worth of mantis paste.

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of, and a co-author of "The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History." He has contributed to GQ, The Awl, The Nation and Slate.

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