NBA history of a sort will be made this Friday night in Brooklyn, where the Heat and the Nets will face each other while wearing nicknames, instead of last names, on their jerseys. By now you've probably heard that Ray Allen will be wearing "J. Shuttlesworth," Deron Williams will have "D-Will," and so on.
Much has been said about how innovative and groundbreaking (or if you're more cynical, how gimmicky and merch-driven) this promotion is. And it's true that this will be the first game in NBA history in which every player on the court is wearing a nicknamed uniform.
But are these the first nicknamed jerseys in NBA history? Not even close.
First, some quick background: Player names on jerseys (or "NOBs," as they're known in the trade, short for "names on back") were pioneered by the 1960 Chicago White Sox. The trend soon spread throughout the sports world, but NOBs were largely unregulated through much of the 1960s and early '70s, so many teams, including several in the NBA and the then-fledgling ABA, experimented with nicknames -- or, as we like to say here at Uni Watch HQ, nickNOBs -- for certain players.
The most famous NBA nickNOB was worn by Pete Maravich, who had "Pistol" on his back -- sometimes with quote marks and sometimes without -- while playing for the Jazz and Hawks. (Unsurprisingly, the more traditionalist Celtics had Maravich wear his surname when he played for them at the end of his career.)
But Pistol Pete is hardly the only pro baller to have worn a nickNOB. Others have included:
• Walt Bellamy of the Hawks, who wore "Bells."
• Elvin Hayes of the Rockets, who simply wore "E." Look at the size of those quote marks!
• Bob McIntyre of the New Jersey Americans (forerunners of today's Brooklyn Nets), who wore "Mac."
• Rudy Tomjanovich of the Rockets, who wore "Rudy T."
• Jan van Breda Kolff, who wore "VBK" for several teams.
• Nick Weatherspoon of the Bullets, who wore "Spoon."
• James Williams of the Spirits, who wore "Fly." (He seems to have been vying with Hayes for the largest quote marks in nickNOB history.)
So that covers the world of basketball. But what about the other major sports? They have some history with nickNOBs as well. Let's go one sport at a time:
Football. NickNOBs have been rare but not unheard of on the gridiron. The most famous one -- and probably the most famous nickNOB in sports history -- was worn by running back Rod Smart of the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws, who will always be known as "He Hate Me." (Smart later made it to the NFL, where he played for the Panthers. Naturally, the NFL wouldn't let him wear a nickNOB, so he just wore his surname.)
At least one NFL player has worn a nickNOB: defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones, who played for the Browns for much of the 1970s and wore his nickname early in his career. (Later on he just wore his surname.)
Then there are several cases that are a bit fuzzier and open to interpretation:
• Hall of Famer Deacon Jones wore "Deacon" during part of his time with the Chargers in the early 1970s. Now, Jones' first name was David, but nobody called him that. For practical purposes, his first name was Deacon. So was he wearing his first name or his nickname? The choice, dear reader, is yours.
• A similar ambiguity surrounds the case of Ed "Wahoo" McDaniel, who wore "Wahoo" while playing for the Dolphins in the 1960s. Pretty much everyone called him Wahoo McDaniel, so we're again confronted with vexing question of what he was wearing: first name or nickname?
• Adam "Pacman" Jones, currently with the Bengals, has never worn his nickname, but he did wear his nickname's first initial while playing for the Titans, because there was another Jones on the team.
• Similarly, Terry "Tank" Johnson never wore his nickname by itself, but he did wear it along with his surname, because there was another Johnson on the team.
As for college football, the Uni Watch photo archives contain no examples of a nickNOB being worn in an NCAA game.
Baseball. Two MLB teams -- the A's and Braves -- account for the majority of baseball nickNOBs. Before we get to those, let's cover the handful of examples that don't involve those two teams:
• During Tony Conigliaro's brief stint with the Angels in 1971, he wore "Tony C."
• Ken Harrelson, who currently broadcasts games for the White Sox, wore "Hawk" while playing for the Indians 1969. (Looks like they used an upside-down "M" for the "W," eh?)
• In 1979, Giants fans were booing shortstop Johnny LeMaster with such gusto that he decided to take the field wearing "Boo." Does this really qualify as a nickname, or is it just an oddity? Your call.
• Chili Davis wore "Chili" during the 1986 All-Star Game (and possibly for regular season action as well, although that remains unconfirmed). Davis' first name is Charles, but nobody called him that, so this is another case that could be considered either a first name or a nickname.
OK, now let's get to the two clubs that briefly went nickNOB-happy, beginning with the A's. Owner Charles Finley loved ruffling old-schoolers' feathers back in the 1960s and '70s, so he dressed many of his players in nicknames, including Bert Campaneris ("Campy"), Jim Hunter ("Catfish"), Billy Conigliaro ("Billy C") and a bunch of others, many of which are spelled out in this article.
There's also the case of Dick Allen, who wore "Wampum" and No. 60 for the 1977 A's -- a shout-out to his 1960 graduating class from Wampum High School in Pennsylvania. Not really a nickname, but definitely related.
The other great wave of MLB nickNOBs came from the 1976 Braves, whose players included Jimmy Wynn ("Cannon"), Jerry Royster ("J. Bird"), Rowland Office ("Row"), and many others, although photographic documentation is lacking for most of them. The most infamous of the Braves' nickNOBs was the one sported by pitcher Andy Messersmith, who wore "Channel" and No. 17 -- a de facto advertisement for team owner Ted Turner's cable TV network at the time. National League president Chub Feeney quickly put the kibosh on that one, so Messersmith changed his nickNOB to "Bluto."
Turner is often credited as the mastermind behind the Braves' nickNOBs, but the idea actually came from his PR director, Bob Hope (no, not that Bob Hope). You can see an interview with him on this subject, and get lots of additional info on the Braves' nickNOBs, here.
Hockey. To Uni Watch's knowledge, no NHL player has ever worn a nickNOB in a game, although a few players have been victimized by nickNOB pranks during pregame warm-ups. In the 1990s, for example, when the Red Wings had five Russian players whose names all ended in "ov," Detroit center Keith Primeau skated onto the ice one time wearing "Primeaov":
It's also worth noting that two NHL teams -- the Lightning and Senators -- have worn alternate jerseys with team nicknames on the front. Not quite the same thing as a nickNOB, of course, but at least somewhat similar.
You can keep all of this history in mind when the Nets and Heat tip off this Friday (or you can just reach for more nachos like everyone else). Meanwhile, did we overlook any nicknamed jerseys from sports history? If so, fill us in.
(Special thanks to Jerry Wolper and Trevor Alexander for their research assistance.)
Paul Lukas figures he would have worn "Luke" if he had played from the A's in the 1960s or the Braves in 1976. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.