What’s in a (Nick) Name?
The progression of a nickname is a mystical and magical thing…in my case at least. My name is Elliot. That’s right, my birth name came from E.T.’s earthling friend in the film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. (The movie came out in 1982, I came out in 1985.) My given name is somewhat unique but to say I was unprepared for what my nickname would become from my co-workers would be an understatement. Here is the progression of how my work nickname of “Och” came to be:
The topic of nicknames came up the other night when I was watching TV with my wife. She is a music teacher and is not that into sports. (If she had to choose between watching the NFC Championship game or a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie, the Christmas movie wins EVERY. TIME.) I don’t think I would even classify my wife as a “casual” fan when it comes to the NBA, NFL, or MLB. It’s less than that. She’d be classified as an “indifferent” fan. (She’ll watch the Super Bowl, some innings of the World Series, and possibly a few possessions of the NBA Finals, but that’s about as far as it goes.)
Have I gotten the point across yet on her level of fandom? Good. So, back to the story. I decided to test my wife by having her list as many current or past major league baseball players she could. She was not timed and I didn’t really give her any hints. Here’s her list, in the order she gave them to me:
Not a bad little list. (Note: She grew up in Fargo, ND, her family members are Twins fans, and she married a handsome, smart, funny, amazing, and humble Twins fan.) I love how you can see the segments in the list. Puckett, Dozier, Span — current or former Twins. Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Thome — sluggers from the 90s/00s era. Ruth, Robinson, Killebrew — old school players. Mauer — (She literally said, “Oh, that guy from the Twins that used to be really good and isn’t very good anymore.”) Johnson — The Big Unit. It took her a little bit to get his name but she could recall his nickname very easily.
After ending on The Big Unit, she said she could get more current or former NBA players than she did baseball players. Here are the names she recalled, in order:
It was during this list that I realized just how much the NBA has changed. My wife knew more nicknames of NBA players than she knew other players. (For Karl Malone and David Robinson, it was much harder for her to think of their real name after she very easily listed “The Mailman” and “The Admiral”.) I only counted the ones where she could give me the players’ actual name, so Dr. J was not enough. (I realize “Penny”, “Muggsy”, and “Magic” are not their birth names but it’s a name the player was most known for so I counted them.)
I miss the NBA where tons of players had nicknames. What happened? It seemed like almost every star player in the 90s/00s era had a nickname. “Air” Jordan, “The Worm”, “The Round Mound of Rebound”, Hakeem “The Dream”, Clyde “The Glide”, “The Answer”, “The Glove”, “Reign Man”, “T-Mac”, “Vinsanity”, and my personal favorite “The Big Fundamental”.
I realize there are some current stars with nicknames, but it seems like they’re way less common than what they were in the past. “King” James, “The Splash Brothers”, “The Greek Freak”, “Boogie”, and “The Brow” are some pretty good ones, but they are fewer and farther between. (For some reason it got really popular to use initials as a nickname. I don’t know if that’s because of Michael Jordan being referred to as M.J. but it’s just not as fun as a real nickname.)
I think that the superstars with nicknames in the 90s/00s era were great for the NBA. (Obviously, when an “indifferent” fan can recall many of the nicknames after 20 years, they are great for recognition.) It was branding for the league and almost every team had it. But what’s changed since then?
For starters, the ability for players to leave a team via free agency has played a big impact. A good number of players from the 90s/00s era spent all or most of their careers in one city, even though unrestricted free agency became official in 1988. “The Admiral” David Robinson played his entire 14-year career in San Antonio. Before returning from his second retirement to play for the Wizards, Michael Jordan spent 13 years with the Bulls. “The Mailman” Karl Malone spent 18 of his 19 seasons playing for the Utah Jazz before trying one last time to win a championship with the Lakers. (Karl Malone turned into Gollum with his pursuit of a championship ring.)
With a large majority of star players staying put, rivalries between teams became more common. The NBA had options. It could market the games as player versus player or team versus team. Magic versus Bird or “The Dream” versus “The Admiral” were fantastic matchups. When it came to team rivalries, it didn’t get much better than the Knicks versus…everybody. Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason, and Charles Oakley would fight ANYONE. (That seems to still be the case with Oakley.) The fighting seemed different somehow back then though. It almost seemed that the players were so competitive and wanted to win so badly that they would literally fight for every possession to try and help their team win.
With players not leaving in free agency as much, many of the teams that reached the playoffs were the same every year. Because of this, the games were more intriguing since fans were more familiar with the players on each team.
Another big difference between the NBA now versus then is technology. There were just fewer options in regards to television programming in the 1990s. (Which is a big factor for why my wife was more familiar with names from that era.) Families could get together Sunday afternoon, NBC would be airing a game, and they would watch because there wasn’t much else on. (In my wife’s case, her family would have a Bulls game on that she’d watch and start to get to know more players as the season went on.) With satellite dishes, cable options, and the Internet, potential “casual” fans have a lot of other options of what they can view.
The past two NBA Finals pitted two of the league’s most popular players in Steph Curry’s led Golden State Warriors facing LeBron James’ led Cleveland Cavaliers. The average viewership for those series was about 20 million. Those numbers compare to the Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon led Houston Rockets defeating the Orlando Magic with Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. The interesting difference between the 1995 Finals and the 2016 Finals is that the 2016 Finals went to seven games, whereas the Rockets swept the Magic 4–0 in the 1995 Finals.
Just in case you were curious, Michael Jordan was in the NBA Finals in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, and 1998. (You probably could’ve guessed that though with the spike in average viewership.) Also, the 2003 NBA Finals was the San Antonio Spurs defeating the New Jersey Nets 4–2, and the 2007 Finals was the Spurs sweeping the Cavaliers 4–0.
I’ve heard many players from the 90s era talk about how the NBA is different from when they played. In today’s NBA, players are more friendly before and after games than players seemed to be in the 90s. I’m not saying the older players weren’t friendly and didn’t joke around, but there seemed to be a more “win-at-all-costs” mentality. I’ve heard numerous former players during broadcasts who are absolutely stunned when a player from one team helps an opponent up from the ground. While that gesture doesn’t bother me that much, I can’t help but wonder if rivalries have suffered because of it.
To help solve the problem of fewer nicknames currently in the NBA, here are some new nicknames for players to get the ball rolling. Please comment with other nicknames you’d like to see current NBA players adopt.
Sources: nba.com; wikipedia.org; espn.com