Where have all the sports nicknames gone?

Where have all the sports nicknames gone?
January 22, 2014, 2:00 pm
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The Celtics played the Miami Heat last night and as usual they gave a valiant effort against a superior opponent. And as usual, they fell short.

The loss was Boston’s third straight and their 15th in the last 17 games. It dropped their record to 14-29, which leaves them tied with Utah for the fourth worst mark in the NBA, and only two and a half games behind Orlando for the second worst.
If the season ended today, Boston would have a 33.7 percent chance at a Top 3 pick. That’s Larry Bird (point Dee Brown) percent, and that’s not too shabby, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, we’re talking nicknames.
The idea began yesterday when it was announced that the Heat would wear their special nickname jerseys against the Celtics. I’m not sure how that came to be, although I assume it had something to do with the game being featured on NBA TV’s weekly Fan Night. Either way, it felt like a slap in the face to Boston. Like they were the Generals to LeBron’s Globetrotters, but I don’t know, maybe that’s just rebuilding’s inferiority complex setting in. It probably doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that the Heat nickname jerseys are unbelievably stupid. Of the 13 players to suit up for Miami last night, only three of them bore nicknames that are actual nicknames: King James, Birdman and Jesus Shuttlesworth. And even Shuttlesworth isn’t so much a nickname as it is a role that Ray Allen played in a movie 16 years ago. Otherwise, the whole thing is a joke, but not a funny joke. More like a Jay Leno joke. One clear takeaway from the whole exercise is that the players don’t care. In most cases, they couldn’t have given their nicknames more than five seconds of thought:
Chris Bosh went with CB. Udonis Haslem went with UD. Greg Oden went with GO. What the hell is that? I realize that this whole experiment was done in the name of selling more jerseys, but who’s buying a Chris Bosh “CB” jersey other than one of Lil Wayne’s friends looking for a last second gag gift? No one. And that’s a problem.

But here’s the bigger problem: Most of these players don’t have nicknames to begin with. And the only thing lamer than not having a nickname at all is having a nickname that’s forced. A good nickname is never forced. It just happens. And in today’s sports world, it very rarely does.
At one point during last night’s game, I started thinking about possible nickname jerseys for the Celtics, and came up blank. Rondo doesn’t have a nickname — which is crazy. Jeff Green doesn’t have a nickname. I’ve heard some people call Avery Bradley “Zilch” and that’s all right, but it hasn’t caught on. Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk: No. No. No. No. Gerald Wallace has “Crash” and that’s pretty cool. Vitor Faverani has “El Hombre Indestructible” which is great but would never fit on a jersey, and would likely go to waste since Faverani rarely takes off his warm ups.
Of course, if they had to, Sullinger could go with SULLY and Humphries could go with HUMP and Olynyk could go with KO, but those aren’t real nicknames. They don’t have any meaning. The Celtics are a largely nickname-less bunch and they aren’t alone.
Does anyone on the Bruins have a great nickname?
Brad Marchand is Nose Face Killah and that’s pretty good. Same goes for Adam McQuaid’s Darth Quaider. Big Z is a solid, if not very creative name for Zdeno Chara. Gregory “Soupy” Campbell is fine, except every Campbell in sports history gets tagged with Soupy at some point. Other than that, the Bruins have Bergy and Looch and a few other guys with nicknames that are just some abbreviated version of their real name.
And then there’s the Pats.
Tom Terrific? No. That’s horrible. Big Vince? Too easy. Minitron worked well for Julian Edelman, but time will tell if he’ll be around to watch it grow. Gronk is Gronk, and while that’s the same kind of nickname I’ve already put down, it’s totally perfect in his case. Gronk would be a great nickname for Gronk even if his last name wasn’t Gronkowski. It’s so simple and prehistoric. It’s totally him. But that’s it — 53 guys, maybe one decent nickname.
The Red Sox have 25 guys, and two solid nicknames: Big Papi and the Laser Show. You like the Flyin’ Hawaiian, too? OK, I’ll give you that.
But that’s it. We’re in a shortage. The city of Boston and the sports world in general could use a few more great nicknames. So, what’s the secret? Where do they come from, and how can we find more?
Well, Victorino’s Flyin’ Hawaiian fits a mold that’s been used successfully over the years. Countries, states or unique towns of origin have long fueled fantastic sports nicknames:
Larry Bird was the Hick from French Lick. Christian Okoye was The Nigerian Nightmare. Marcin Gortat is the Polish Hammer. Pavel Bure was the Russian Rocket. Mike Greenwell was from Florida, and Gator fit him to a tee.
Big Papi is an example of another essential nickname template. Just the word Big: Frank Thomas was the Big Hurt. Randy Johnson was the Big Unit. Glen Davis is Big Baby. Bryant Reeves was Big Country. Tim Duncan is the Big Fundamental. Andres Gallaraga was the Big Cat. Mark McGwire was Big Mac. Sam Perkins was Big Smooth.
And then there’s the “Man” formula: Karl Malone’s Mailman. Shawn Kemp’s Reignman. George Gervin’s Iceman. Wade Boggs’ Chicken Man. Cal Ripken’s Iron Man. Stacey Augmon’s Plastic Man.
But listen, we could sit here all day and break down the name game. We can try to piece together the perfect step-by-step process to making a nickname that sticks, but at the end of the day, it comes down to this: It’s not up to us.
For a nickname to stick, it has to be cool. Not in the opinion of reporters and fans but the players themselves. They have to like. They have to embrace it. And from a player’s perspective, reporters and fans are many things, but for the most part “cool” is not one of them. What clicks for us does not click for them. In other words, the nicknames need to come from them. The greatest ones always have.
The Truth was Paul Pierce’s gift from Shaq. Big Papi was called Big Papi by his teammates before he was by anyone else. Calvin Johnson was first called Megatron by teammate Roy Williams. Kobe Bryant made up the Black Mamba all on his own. Allen Iverson showed in the NBA with “The Answer” already tattooed on his bicep. Rich Garces wasn’t El Guapo until teammate Mike Maddux started calling him that. Danny Ainge coined Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. And the list goes on.
Well, hopefully it does. In many ways, it feels like the list is slowly creeping to a halt. The sports world needs more. It’s up to the athletes to save us.
And it’ll take much more than CB, UD and GO to get it done.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine