Success, it's in the name
By Bob Halloran
Special to Page 2

What's in a name? I'll tell you ...

Troy Hambrick
Troy Hambrick is the type of name you might remember around your household.
I heard Dallas Cowboys running back Troy Hambrick say that he wants more opportunities to carry the ball, in part, because he wants to become a household name. Now, I'm not sure he could become a household name even if he changed his name to Johnny Spatula, but I think with just three syllables in his name, he's got a real shot at greatness.

Some people are born to greatness. Others have it thrust upon them. And the way you can tell the difference is in the name. The shorter the name, the greater the athlete. Babe Ruth -- eight letters, two syllables. Jim Thorpe. Brett Favre. Jim Brown. Cy Young. Mel Ott. (You can't get any shorter than Mel Ott unless you're Ty Law of the Patriots. The fact that Law has just five letters in his name suggests he should have been destined for unparalleled greatness, and while he's very good, he's not as good as someone with that short a name should be. Call it the Law Flaw in the short-name theory.)

Adherence to this theory will make analyzing potential significantly easier. Who are the next great athletes on the horizon? Yao Ming -- tall person, short name. He'll be outstanding. Paul Pierce -- I'm telling you, if his name were Paul Piercechusetts, he might not have come back from that knife attack. Mike Vick -- you think it's a coincidence that he shortened his name from Michael to Mike. He's no fool. He's aware of the theory. He was great in college, but when he took his game to the next level, he needed to take his name to the next level, too. Troy Glaus -- the future looks bright, kid.

Nomar Garciaparra? Sorry, but that's seven syllables for a U.S.-born player. While there are exceptions to the theory, it sure looks like Nomar's career will be plagued by a series of wrist, knee and groin injuries. His impending marriage to Mia Hamm might offset some of his predestined misfortune, but it would help if he shortened his own first name and then took on her maiden name. "Now batting -- No Hamm!"

This hypothesis should also settle several debates about who is the greatest of all time. Ruth or Barry Bonds? Go with the Babe. Ty Cobb or Pete Rose? It gets a little tougher.

Nomar Garciaparra, Mia Hamm
Maybe Nomar Garciaparra should take the last name of his fiancée, Mia Hamm.
Among NFL running backs, Jim Brown has to get the nod over Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders -- and Eric Dickerson keeps sliding further and further down the list for obvious multi-syllabic reasons.

Among NFL quarterbacks, it's John Elway over Joe Montana or Dan Marino any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr? It's pretty much a wash. If only Orr had the wisdom and foresight to go with Bob instead. Some say Mario Lemieux could have been the greatest ever if it weren't for injuries and his bout with Hodgkins disease. But, in truth, he was merely ill-fated by an elongated name with confusing lettering and the always treacherous "silent X." If you're going to have an "x" in your name, make it strong, like Jimmie Foxx. He "double x'd" his way right into the Hall of Fame.

Faced with the debate between Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain, first consider the syllable war. It's 4-to-4. So, that's no help. Wilt has the shorter first name, which supports his case. But we all wanted "to be like Mike." Jordan certainly could have been the first to "pull a Vick," and shorten his name, but he didn't have to. He's Michael Jordan -- the greatest ever. He defies laws of gravity. He might just as well defy this law of brevity.

Shaq can try to force his way into a higher pantheon of greatness by getting us to refer to him mono-syllabically -- as if he were Pele, Cher or Fabio -- but unfortunately for him, his name rhymes. He'll always be Shaquille O'Neal, and he'll always be bothered by that arthritic big toe. The little piggy that went to market will be his undoing, and he may never pass Larry Bird, Bill Russell or even Spud Webb on the list of greatest of all time.

I've attempted to prove the validity of my theory with examples from the four major sports. But the principle that short names are directly proportional to an athlete's greatness extends beyond the four majors. And that brings us to golf. Tiger Woods -- 'nuff said. Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Hale Irwin. Notice a trend? Is it any wonder that Phil Mickelson can't knock Tiger off his perch? He might as well call himself Philip McMickelsonanova. He's never going to be No. 1.

Is Pete Sampras the greatest tennis player ever? Or was it Rod Laver? Jimmy Connors? Certainly, they're all better than An-dre Ag-as-si. But for the best of the best, I'd go with Bjorn Borg, not only because he was, but because if you say it fast enough, "Bjorn" can be one syllable. Edge to the guy who dominated on grass and clay.

Ryan Leaf
OK, so Ryan Leaf proves there's an exception to every rule.
To this point, my theory hasn't been well received by scholars, nor adopted by historians. Both groups tend to push me aside, as if I were a photographer trying to take a picture of Sean Penn. I'm on the lunatic fringe, they say. My theory has more holes in it than Sonny Corleone at the toll booth. And while it's true, I can't really explain away Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Martina Navratilova, Mariano Rivera or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others, I defend the postulate by pointing out that the laws of physics aren't absolute either. The laws of nature gave us the platypus. And the rules of English spelling gave us "o-u-g-h". (Try teaching a kid to spell when you come across words like cough, thought, through and thorough. "You see, sometimes the "gh" makes an "f" sound, and sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes the "ou" sounds like "aw" or "oo" or even "oh". Yes, Timmy, my head hurts, too.")

Clearly, there are wonderful examples of long-named exceptions to the Short Name Theory. There are also some athletes who, based on the shortness of their names, probably should have achieved greatness. Bo Jackson had a short enough name to have a much longer career. And Ryan Leaf is the Law Flaw MVP. These things happen.

And it may happen more and more. The influx of foreign-born players (beyond Canada) is messing with the theory. Orr and Gretzky have given way to Ilya Kovulchuk, but Joe Thornton might be the next great hockey player. Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux have already passed the torch to Pedro Martinez, but Barry Zito may have the proper name size to pick up a few more Cys. These aren't the days of Larry Bird or Magic Johnson anymore. It's Zydrunas Ilgauskas' and Dirk Nowitzki's world now, but Jason Kidd and Tim Duncan are still living in it. There will undoubtedly be a few leaks, but the theory will always hold water.

Yours truly, Bob Hall.

Bob Halloran is an anchorman for ESPNEWS.



Bob Halloran Archive

Halloran: Inquiring minds want to know

Halloran: Setting goals

Halloran: Universal sufferage

Halloran: The numbers do lie

Halloran: Diamonds are forever

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