Ranking the 10 Best Nicknames in College Basketball History
Some of the best college basketball players of all time have unforgettable nicknames.
They range from creative plays on words that rhyme with the player’s name to innovative descriptions of their skills and uniqueness.
In some cases, we have essentially replaced their actual names with their well-established nicknames.
Here is a ranking of the 10 best nicknames in college basketball history. If you think that someone is missing from this list, write your comment and make your case.
Here we go!
Player links provided by Sports-Reference.
A number of college basketball players with creative and unique nicknames were close to making this list. In the end, only 10 survived. Here is a 20-name honorable mention list of best nicknames of all time:
Dwayne "Pearl" Washington (Syracuse)
Robert "Tractor" Traylor (Michigan)
Wilfred "Spongy" Benjamin (Marist)
Anthony "Spud" Webb (NC State)
Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues (Wake Forest)
Craig "Speedy" Claxton (Hofstra)
Wayne "Tree" Rollins (Clemson)
Lafayette "Fat" Lever (Arizona State)
Oscar "Big O" Robertson (Cincinnati)
Nate "Tiny" Archibald (UTEP)
Billy "The Kangaroo Kid" Cunningham (North Carolina)
Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell (UNC-Charlotte)
James "Scoonie" Penn (Ohio State)
Alfred "Butch" Beard (Louisville)
Daron "Mookie" Blaylock (Oklahoma)
Vernal "Bimbo" Coles (Virginia Tech)
Richard "Rip" Hamilton (UConn)
Glenn "Doc" Rivers (Marquette)
Chet "the Jet" Walker (Bradley)
Ronald "Flip" Murray (Shaw)
10. Earl "The Squirrel" Boykins
It’s not hard to conclude why Eastern Michigan’s Earl Boykins nickname is “Squirrel.”
Standing 5’5” and weighing 135 pounds, Boykins' diminutive size sets up this rhyming moniker.
According to Complex.com's “The 15 Greatest Short NBA Players of All Time,” Boykins was the second-shortest player in league history.
You have to give Boykins props for going from being undrafted in 1998 to playing off and on in the NBA over the last 15 years.
9. Bryant "Big Country" Reeves
Oklahoma State’s Bryant Reeves was first called “Big Country” by Byron Houston, his OSU teammate, “after Reeves was amazed following his first airplane flight across the United States” (per News24by7).
This handle was an accurate description of this ordinary 7-footer from Gans, Oklahoma.
Watch one of the unique moments for which Reeves is remembered: the day that he shattered a backboard at the 1995 Final Four.
8. Clyde "The Glide" Drexler
Clyde Drexler made basketball look effortless when he was a member of the early 1980s hoops frat, Phi Slama Jama.
From 1982 to 1984, Houston was one of the most explosive teams in CBB history.
“The Glide” was a nickname that not only flowed smoothly off of announcers’ lips but also precisely described his outstanding leaping ability as he soared to the basket during his Hall of Fame career.
Unfortunately, his 2007 showing on Dancing with the Stars was less than memorable.
7. Earl "The Pearl" Monroe
Long before "Earl the Squirrel," there was "Earl the Pearl."
Earl Monroe was one of the most skilled open-court players in the history of the game.
Though he played for Division II Winston-Salem College, Monroe’s ball-handling and scoring were nearly unmatched.
In an April 2013 Sporting News article, Monroe explained how he earned his renowned nickname:
That year I led the nation in scoring, averaging 41.5 points a game overall, 44 points a game in conference play, and a total of 1,329 points, which is still the second-most ever. I shot 60.7 percent from the floor that year, and many of my points came on long jump shots. My highest scoring game was a 68-point explosion against Fayetteville, but I had a string of about 10 or 12 games scoring in the high 40s or more that Luix Overbea, a black sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal, referred to as "Earl's pearls." That nickname soon morphed into "Earl the Pearl," and it stuck to me from then on.
6. Wilt "The Big Dipper" Chamberlain
Kansas’ Wilt Chamberlain was one of the most dominant big men in the history of basketball.
His athleticism was light years ahead of most of the post players in his day. Chamberlain not only starred on the hardwood, but he also was a three-time Big Eight Conference champion high jumper.
He was one of those players who had multiple nicknames throughout his college and professional career.
His NBA.com bio details his preference for the various designations that started while he was a high school star in Philly:
It was also during this time that one of his nicknames, "the Stilt," was coined by a local newspaper writer. Chamberlain detested it, as he did other monikers that called attention to his height, such as "Goliath." The names he didn't mind were "Dippy" and "Dipper," along with the later variant, "Big Dipper." The story goes that Chamberlain's buddies seeing him dip his head as his walked through doorways tagged him with the nickname and it stuck.
5. Dominique "The Human Highlight Film" Wilkins
Dominique Wilkins' nickname (The Human Highlight Film) may not have the cadenced quality of “Earl the Pearl” or “Clyde the Glide,” but it is spot-on with his mind-blowing exploits while playing for Georgia.
People don’t refer to someone with this dramatic of a tag just because of a few dunks in pregame warm-ups.
His explosive leaping ability and thunderous throwdowns made him one of the most frightening players under 6’8” in the history of the game.
His NBA.com bio points to his “acrobatic exploits” while playing for the Dawgs as the genesis of his unique personal label.
4. "Pistol Pete" Maravich
Pete Maravich is college basketball’s all-time leading scorer.
The fact that he scored over 400 points more than Freeman Williams, No. 2 on the all-time list, is only the beginning of the story. Maravich tallied his total in three varsity years (83 games) at LSU, while Williams put up his points in four full seasons (106 games) at Portland State.
In a Sports Illustrated photo gallery about NBA nicknames, the origin of Maravich’s enduring trademark is discussed:
As with many things about Maravich, it's hard to know how where the truth about his nickname ends and its legend begins. It was either given to him at age 12 by a reporter or when he was in college at LSU. It was either because of his shooting motion (from the hip, like unholstering a pistol) or because of his dead-eye accuracy. But, like all good legends, it makes no difference, as Maravich will always be the supreme talent and showman known simply as Pistol.
3. Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon’s life story is one you would expect to see in a movie or read in a novel.
He went from playing basketball for the first time at age 15 in Nigeria to becoming a Hall of Fame center and a 12-time NBA All-Star.
On his way to that amazing professional career, Olajuwon worked tirelessly at the University of Houston, leading the Cougars to three straight Final Fours.
When considering how this scenario should be described, the words that come to mind are the very words that make up Olajuwon’s perfect nickname...The Dream.
2. Julius "Dr. J" Erving (Massachusetts)
The final two players’ nicknames on this list have transcended a descriptive, personal marker. They have become the primary way by which these superstars are identified.
Basketball legend Julius Erving is known to most people simply as Dr. J. If you used his full name with some marginal fans, they may not know whom you are talking about.
Earlier this year, Erving was interviewed on CBS This Morning. He cleared up the basis of his fabled nickname:
Dr. J said the name originated from a high school friend even though people began trying to dub him things like "The Claw" and "Black Moses." He explained, "When I got to the Rucker League (in New York City), I was already 21, it was my junior year of college, and I was going to play on that stage before my first pro season. And they started calling me all kinds of nicknames because of the antics on the court, and I went over and corrected them and said, 'Look, if you're going to call me anything, just call me the Doctor, because you know, my best friend in high school had given me the name The Doctor and I'd given him the name The Professor and we graduated high school together, went to college together and shared those nicknames...He said I had a lot of moves-- more moves than Carter has liver pills."
My own dad just got more cool because he uses the same “Carter has liver pills” adage that Dr. J did.
1. Earvin "Magic" Johnson
When Earvin Johnson first went to Michigan State in the late 1970s and someone referred to him as “Magic,” I remember thinking that was a ridiculous nickname.
Boy, was I wrong.
Over the next two years in East Lansing, Johnson revolutionized the point guard position on his way to leading the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA championship.
His shootout with Indiana State’s Larry Bird in this title game was epic.
But it was Johnson’s mind-blowing basketball skills and charismatic leadership that launched college basketball into another stratosphere.
He was and he is...Magic!
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