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The Greatest Nicknames in NBA History

Dan LevyNational Lead WriterJune 10, 2013

The Greatest Nicknames in NBA History

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    Julius Erving was more than just a great basketball player. The man was a cultural icon...and also, a doctor! Well, not a doctor, but definitely "The Doctor," which is one of the great nicknames in the history of American sports. 

    The Doctor, an NBA TV documentary on Erving, debuts Monday, June 10, at 9 p.m. The film is a fantastic look at Dr. J's life, career and impact on basketball and pop culture. The footage and interviews from Rucker Park in New York provided the most interesting aspects of the film.

    There have been a lot of legendary stories to come out of Rucker Park—and certainly some legendary players—but none may be more legendary than the genesis of the nickname "Dr. J."

    Erving and his longtime friend, Leon Saunders, used to play basketball together in high school. Erving was tired of his friend being a stickler for the rules, so he came up with a derisive nickname for Saunders.

    "He was like a professor," Erving explained during the documentary, "weighing you down in the lecture hall. So I started calling him Professor."

    Saunders explained in the documentary that he chided back, "'What do you know? You're here arguing with me. What are you...the Doctor?' And every time we would see each other we would look up and I'd say 'Doctor' and he would say 'Professor' and it was just an inside joke." 

    In the documentary, Erving explains that when he went to Rucker Park in college, the announcers called him many different names, including Little Hawk (in reference to the legend Connie Hawkins), The Claw and Black Moses. Finally, Erving told the announcers if they wanted to give him a nickname, call him "The Doctor." 

    From that, the legend of Dr. J was born.

    ...

    OK...the history lesson is over. Now for the fun. Is Dr. J (or The Doctor) the best nickname in NBA history?  

    We narrowed a list of more than 50 nicknames down to a pretty solid list of 16, ranked from one to eight for both an "East" and "West" bracket in an NBA playoff format.

    Before you go crazy and complain that we forgot your favorite player, we decided to ignore any rhyming nicknames—yes, even Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon, both of whom could have made the list—as well as any nickname that's just a shortened version of a player's name. Sorry Melo. Even more sorry, The Big O.

    Really, we should have made this an NCAA field of 64-style bracket, but in the NBA there are only 16 playoff teams, so some players just couldn't make the cut. We'll address a few of those throughout the bracket.

    Now...on to the East, with Dr. J obviously leading the pack.

East: 1. Julius "The Doctor" Erving vs. 8. Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins

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    It's hard to have two versions of the same nickname that are both interchangeably cool. The Doctor is one thing, but Dr. J is the coolest damn nickname for a guy named Julius (or any name that begins with J), especially considering it came from the buzz around Rucker Park.

    There have been many Doctor nicknames to follow Dr. J—Doc Rivers and Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith come to mind—but Dr. J is, was and always will be "The Doctor." 

    As for Darryl Dawkins, there were many other options for the eighth seed in the East. Wayne "Tree" Rollins came to mind. So did Armen "The Hammer" Gilliam, but we went with Chocolate Thunder because, well, there aren't any names much cooler than Chocolate Thunder for a guy who could dunk with the ferocity of Dawkins.

    I had the chance to talk to Dr. J at a recent screening of The Doctor, and I asked him who he thinks has the best nickname in NBA history. His first thought was his old teammate Dawkins, before saying it can't be him because he had too many nicknames.

    He then told me to ask his young son, who chose Shaquille O'Neal. Talk about a guy with too many nicknames! Off the top of my head, Shaq had at least five, and none (sorry Diesel) were as cool as Chocolate Thunder.

East: 2. David "The Admiral" Robinson vs. 7. Joe "Jellybean" Bryant

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    There may not be a more apt nickname in NBA history than David Robinson being called the Admiral.

    Robinson famously played at Navy and served in the United States military before starting his NBA career. Robinson was not just a great player, but carried himself with a level of class and discipline on the court that made the nickname one of the best in NBA history.

    Joe Bryant may now be best known as Kobe's father, but he was a decent player in his own right, bouncing around the NBA before playing overseas. There are a good number of what you might call "silly" nicknames in NBA history. There's Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson. There's Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell, who reportedly hated that nickname or he would have made the list.

    There's William "Smush" Parker or Ronald "Popeye" Jones too. None of those nicknames are as silly and fun-loving as Jellybean. Via the Los Angeles Times

    Growing up in Philadelphia, a high school teammate nicknamed him "Jellybean" for his variety of moves despite being so big. "It must be jelly because jam don't shake like that," Bryant recalls hearing, quoting the hit Glenn Miller song.

    Smush don't shake like that either. Cornbread, however, might.

East: 3. "Pistol" Pete Maravich vs. 6. Stacey "The Plastic Man" Augmon

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    A guy who loves to shoot, who had a slight hitch in his shot that made people think he was shooting from his hip? Call him Pistol? Yeah, that sounds right.

    Pistol Pete Maravich was one of the great college players in NCAA history, and while injuries may have hurt his NBA career numbers, he was still an absolute legend in the game.

    If you have some time, do a YouTube search for Pistol Pete's old clips from after he retired where he goes over ball-handling drills. The guy was amazing.

    For Augmon, he was a product of my youth. I always loved the Plastic Man as a player, especially in college (UNLV), but his nickname was just one of my favorite monikers ever. It's just so unique and fitting of his game, exactly what a good nickname should be.

    This is probably as good a place as any to explain why some of the longer nicknames aren't on the list. There is no "The Hick from French Lick" nor "The Round Mound of Rebound" on this list because those aren't really nicknames for Larry Bird and Charles Barkley, respectively, as much as they are sing-songy catchphrases about them.

    Larry Legend didn't make the list, and neither did Sir Charles, but those are nicknames. The sayings about a player aren't. Now, the Human Highlight Film could be considered a nickname, and you can make a case that it should be in the top 16.

    The Kangaroo Kid, a nickname for Billy Cunningham, could also be on the list, but neither was as good as Plastic Man.

East: 4. Robert "The Chief" Parish vs. 5. Anthony "Spud" Webb

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    Let's keep this one short: Has there ever been a man who looked like he should be called "Chief" more than Robert Parish? Not even in the NBA, in the history of the world?

    (No. There has not.)

    As for Spud Webb, he's one of two little players on the list, making it ahead of Nate "Tiny" Archibald because, frankly, as great as Archibald was, I like it more when big guys are ironically called Tiny. A small guy being called Tiny is like a big guy being called Wilt "The Stilt." A little too on the nose, if you ask me.

    But Spud? If there was ever a man who looked like a Spud, it was Webb.

West: 1. Earvin "Magic" Johnson vs. 8. Dennis "The Worm" Rodman

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    Magic. Is there a better nickname for a guy with Johnson's dynamic skill set than Magic? From NBA.com:

    Johnson was first called "Magic" when he was a star at Everett High School. He was given the nickname by a sports writer who had just seen the 15-year-old prepster notch 36 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists. (Johnson's mother, a devout Christian, thought the nickname was blasphemous.)

    That last line is so hilarious to think about in this day and age. How many nicknames would moms today find blasphemous? Magic?

    I wonder how she felt about science.

    As for Rodman, well, is there anything more disgusting than a gross, multi-colored worm? I'll be honest, I was convinced by other basketball brains to put Rodman on the list. He made it above some other worthy candidates, like John Havlicek for one.

    I admit, The Worm is better than Hondo, but I suddenly wish we could see John Wayne and Dennis Rodman in a movie about magic.

West: 2. George "The Iceman" Gervin vs. 7. Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson

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    A good nickname is supposed to be cool. Nobody wants a nickname that makes him seem less cool than he is. That's why Dr. J is such a great nickname…it somehow made the coolest guy on the planet even cooler.

    Enter...The Iceman.

    There probably isn't a cooler nickname in NBA history than The Iceman (pardon the pun), and he would certainly be tops on one side of this bracket if it wasn't for the fact that the average person knows who Magic Johnson and Dr. J are because of their nicknames. Ask a non-sports fan who Earvin Johnson is and then ask them who Magic Johnson is and see if they think it's the same person.

    Gervin is a basketball legend, but The Iceman isn't quite as ubiquitous as Magic or The Doctor.

    As for Vinnie Johnson, well, rumor has it he was nicknamed The Microwave because he could get hot at a moment's notice. I always thought it was because the guy was built like a compact metal box.

    Either way, he was certainly a key part of those old Pistons championship teams. And that's one heckuva cool nickname. Or hot nickname, as it were.

West: 3. Karl "The Mailman" Malone vs 6. Michael "Air" Jordan

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    It's odd, because in my first go-round on this list, I forgot about The Mailman, which is certainly one of the 10 best nicknames in NBA history.

    A guy who "always delivered," Malone was one of the greats of his time in the NBA, but in a way he's been immensely overshadowed by the likes of Charles Barkley (still on TV) and Tim Duncan (still on the court) when discussing the best power forwards of the last 20 years.

    Malone made news last week when he said he wouldn't put Jordan on his first team in NBA history. Maybe Malone is just jealous of all the notoriety Jordan has gotten in his time and thought someone else deserved the attention. Maybe Malone is just jealous of all those rings; particularly Jordan's last two won against the Jazz.

    He may not have the historical love that Jordan has, but he certainly wins the nickname battle.

    Jordan's nickname is perfect for him. It's simple, direct and explains in one simple word everything you need to know about the man. Having said that, it’s a marketing slogan, a way to sell shoes.

    We didn't put "Grandmama" on the list for Larry Johnson because that was part of a shoe campaign, but we decided to include Jordan because his brand identity transcends one silly commercial campaign.

    MJ is Air Jordan. That should count for something.

West: 4. Gary "The Glove" Payton vs. 5. Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues

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    The Glove is such a great way to describe a lockdown defender with a penchant for steals. Payton is fourth in NBA history in steals, but his defensive prowess went beyond that. He was the 1995-96 NBA Defensive Player of the Year and was a nine-time NBA All-Defensive first-team selection. The name fits like…something.

    Muggsy Bogues is one of the players whose real first name I didn't even remember. It may be odd that Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues both made the list, but they both represent the many NBA players with nicknames that supersede their given names.

    Magic Johnson transcends that list, but players like Popeye Jones (Ronald), Smush Parker (William), Speedy Claxton (Craig), Tree Rollins (Wayne) and Pooh Richardson (Jerome) all hope Muggsy can pull the first-round upset on their behalf.

NBA Nickname Game: The Bracket

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    Now that the first-round matchups have all been unveiled, here is a full look at the NBA Nickname bracket. You may notice three glaring truths when looking at the 16 names that made the "playoffs."

    First, there are a lot of great nicknames in the NBA, more so than other top professional sports. The NFL probably has as many nicknames in history, but given the number of players in each league, it's pretty clear than the NBA has more great nicknames per capita than any other sport. 

    We touched on some of the names that didn't make this list, but there are certainly others too. Robert "Tractor" Traylor or Bryant "Big Country" Reeves could have made the list. Isiah Thomas went by "Zeke" during his career, which led to many joking that all his bad moves as an executive were handled by an alter ego of that name.

    John "The Spider" Salley didn't make it, and perhaps he has a complaint over The Worm. Still, of all insects, I might be partial to Kevin Durant, who has been called—and I want to credit J.E. Skeets of The Basketball Jones with creating this—The Durantula.

    We mentioned Shaq's million nicknames, but Tim Duncan's "The Big Fundamental" is at least better than most of his (certainly better than The Big Aristotle). So too is Shawn Marion's "Matrix," and perhaps one of the best nicknames to miss the list is Billy Paultz, who was called "The Whopper."

    Think of the marketing opportunities with that one.

    Second, you should notice "The Answer" didn't make the list. While Allen Iverson's nickname was cool and transcended the game of basketball—when you heard "The Answer," you knew it was Iverson, no matter what sport you were watching—I hated it.

    As a Sixers fan at the time, I always felt the name, given to Iverson by then-Sixers president Pat Croce, was an albatross for the franchise, admitting he was the savior and never really finding him that complementary piece he needed to win.

    Who was going to lead the Sixers to the first title since Dr. J ? Croce thought he had The Answer to that question, and it never quite worked, no matter how exciting the ride with Iverson was. Call it selfish, but I always hated that nickname.

    Last, you may notice that none of the nicknames on the list are current stars in the league. Most of the names today are just lazy shortened versions of the players' full names. Everybody knows who Melo is, but it's not a legendary nickname like Muggsy.

    The Black Mamba? Please. King James? You want King James to make this list? The current NBA really needs to think about upping its nickname game.

    As for the bracket we have, obviously it's chalk because we seeded the players that way. Until the last minute, I did have Gervin on the top line, but I've explained why that change was made.

    The bracket, of course, leads to an epic 1980s-style finale between Dr. J and Magic. Who wouldn't want to see that again? Who will win?

NBA Nickname Finals: Dr. J vs. Magic

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    Like every nickname in this exercise, the decision to chose one over the other is subjective. Both Dr. J and Magic Johnson have an aura around them that exudes coolness, and both legends have a nickname that finds a way to enhance that feeling without being silly or distracting.

    A grown man named Magic. A basketball player called The Doctor. Still, all these years after they've retired, the names work.

    For me, I'm going with The Doctor for two reasons, neither of which is because this entire project was constructed in time for the premiere of the documentary with the same name.

    First, I'm a Sixers fans, and despite rooting for the Lakers to beat the Celtics throughout the '80s, Sixers fans of that era could never pick Magic over one of their own, especially not Dr. J.

    Second, when it comes down to it, Magic Johnson has one version of that name that works. He's not Earvin "The Magician" Johnson, and people just call him Magic. (That, by the way, makes his nickname better, not worse.)

    Yet Dr. J can be Julius "The Doctor" Erving and Dr. J, giving him two versions of the same amazing name, and the title of the best nickname in NBA history.

    Please have fun with this, and share your favorite names in the comments. And don't forget to watch The Doctor on NBA TV. It's worth your time.

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