The 10 Greatest NBA Nicknames of All-Time
For generations the NBA has been home to some of sport's greatest nicknames. Whether it was Bob Cousy being labelled the ‘Houdini of the Hardwood’ in the fifties, or Michael Jordan being dubbed ‘Air’ Jordan in the eighties, the tradition of nicknaming great players has been a part of the NBA since its inception in 1949.
Some nicknames are given based on a player’s specific skill - Tim Duncan was affectionately nicknamed ‘The Big Fundamental’ due to his sound understanding of basketball’s basic principles. Some nicknames follow players from their childhood. Anfernee Hardaway was known as ‘Penny’ well before his NBA-days, a nickname given to him by his grandmother that stuck throughout his childhood.
Although people these days tend to default to the first initial-last name nonsense, there are still some brilliant nicknames out there that rival the great nicknames of previous generations.
With that, let’s take a look at some of the greatest nicknames in NBA history.
Shawn Marion – Matrix
Karl Malone – The Mailman
Pete Maravich – Pistol Pete
Jerry West – The Logo
Michael Jordan – His Airness
Kevin Garnett – The Big Ticket
David Robinson – The Admiral
Dwyane Wade - Flash
Darryl Dawkins – Chocolate Thunder
Hakeem Olajuwon – Hakeem the Dream
George Gervin – The Iceman
Charles Barkley – The Round Mound of Rebound
10. Jason Williams a.k.a. White Chocolate
The White Chocolate nickname was given to Jason Williams during his rookie campaign in Sacramento. After seeing Williams play for the first time a media relations associate, who was also a fan of the And-1 mixtapes, gave him the nickname because of his flashy style of play.
The nickname suited Williams perfectly. Early in his career he had built a reputation in the league as a “street baller” and was a regular on the highlight reel for his eye-popping passing and incredible dribbling ability.
9. Dominique Wilkins a.k.a. The Human Highlight Reel
Has there ever been a more matter-of-fact nickname in sports? Known as the Human Highlight Reel, Dominique Wilkins was exactly that. The nickname was originally given to him during his days as a Georgia Bulldog in reference to his delivery of highlight plays seemingly every game.
During his time with the Atlanta Hawks, Wilkins himself was worth the price of admission. Whether it was a thunderous two-hand windmill on a fast break, or a one-hand tomahawk over an out-stretched defender, he always made sure that the fans went home with something to talk about. All you ever had to do was show up and sit down; Wilkens took care of the rest.
8. Shaquille O’Neal a.k.a. Diesel (a.k.a. Shaq, Superman, The Big Aristotle, The Big Cactus, The Big Shamrock, Shaq Daddy, Witness Protection, The Sheriff, etc.)
Okay, so Shaq has a lot of nicknames. I could write an entire article on the ‘Ten Greatest Shaq Nicknames of All-Time’ and to be honest, they’re all pretty great. But the one that stands out in my head is ‘Diesel’ or ‘Shaq Diesel’. Apparently, Shaq originally came up with the name while playing at LSU to indicate that he has the power and endurance of a Diesel engine and in 1993, he even released a hip-hop album entitled Shaq Diesel.
The ‘Diesel’ nickname is a pretty accurate representation of Shaq’s on-court style of play. In his prime, Shaq played heavy minutes and would physically dominate his opponents all game long. Although injuries eventually slowed him down toward the end of his career, during his prime Shaq had no equal.
7. Vince Carter a.k.a. Half-Man-Half-Amazing
Early in Vince Carter’s career, he truly did things that made you believe that he wasn’t human. Vince’s leaping ability coupled with the mid-flight acrobatics made him must-see TV during the early 2000s, but it was his performance in the 2000 dunk contest followed by his miraculous dunk in the 2000 Olympic Games (where he literally jumped OVER 7’2” Frédéric Wiess) that really set him apart as ‘Half-Man-Half-Amazing’.
Everything about Vince seemed as though it wasn’t humanly possible. The elevation on his jump shot, the perfect rotation on a windmill dunk, the gravity defying hang time on a scoop lay-up – it all seemed unreal.
6. Allen Iverson a.k.a. The Answer
‘The Answer’ nickname was given to Allen Iverson because in the eyes of his high school teammates, he was the answer to basketball conformity. During the 1980s, basketball was a family friendly sport, and the NBA didn’t really connect with what was going on in popular culture. Iverson changed all of that. Iverson was then ‘The Answer’ to all of his family’s problems, by securing a college scholarship and eventually being drafted into the NBA. Later the nickname took on another meaning when he was drafted by the 76ers when the Philadelphia faithful referred to Iverson as the answer to all of their team’s problems.
Even as a kid in high school, Allen Iverson has always assumed a ton of responsibility, it’s just in his nature. Once he came to the NBA, he continued to embody the nickname and followed through on everything that it stands for. Throughout his life and career, Allen Iverson has been the answer to a lot of problems.
5. Paul Pierce a.k.a. The Truth
What makes this nickname so great is where it came from. This is the only name on the list that was given to a player, not by a teammate or coach, but by an opponent.
After a 2001 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, a game that Paul Pierce finished with 42 points on 13 for 19 shooting, Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal grabbed the closest reporter and told him to take down the following quote:
“My name is Shaquille O’Neal and Paul Pierce is the [expletive] truth. Quote me on that and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth.”
During his career, Pierce has lived up to the high praised offered by O’Neal, but the fact that this nickname was given by an opposing player from a rival team makes it one of the best.
4. Gary Payton a.k.a. The Glove
This is perhaps the most fitting nickname in NBA history (pun intended). Payton was nicknamed in 1993 during the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns. During the series, a family member of Payton’s called him and compared his defensive work on Suns guard Kevin Johnson to a baseball in a baseball glove. From that day on Gary Payton, who had already earned a reputation as a lockdown defender, was known as ‘The Glove’.
Payton went on to be one of the greatest perimeter defenders of all-time and, to this day, is the only point guard in league history to win Defensive Player of the Year.
3. Kobe Bryant a.k.a. The Black Mamba
Who says you can’t give nicknames to yourself? Well, that’s exactly what Bryant did. During an interview with the LA Times, Bryant explained the comparison to the venomous snake saying:
“The Mamba can strike with 99% accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession. That’s the kind of basketball precision I want to have.”
It was this mentality that led Bryant to become one of the game’s all-time greats. The fact that he would compare himself to one of the world’s deadliest snakes shows you the type of mental approach Bryant took to the game.
2. Julius Erving a.k.a. The Doctor/Dr. J
The nickname ‘The Doctor’ was given to Julius Erving as a child. During a pickup game, one of his friends said he was like doctor, operating on his opponents and slicing up the defense on his way to the rim. When he eventually turned pro in the ABA (American Basketball Association), the nickname was shortened to Dr. J.
This nickname was perfect for Erving for two reasons. Firstly, at 6’9” Erving really did slice up opposing defenses with smooth dribbling and a huge two-step gather that could get him from the free throw line baseline. Secondly, the name was almost as cool as Erving was. Back in the early seventies, he became a pop culture icon thanks to his style both on and off the court.
1. Earvin Johnson a.k.a. Magic Johnson
It’s wild to think that the greatest nickname in basketball history almost never came to fruition. When Johnson was first called ‘Magic’ he was a high school star in Lansing, Michigan. After a game in which Johnson finished with a triple-double, a local sports writer gave him the renowned moniker. The problem, however, was that Johnson’s parents were deeply religious. His mother in particular was infuriated by the nickname, calling it sacrilegious and blasphemous. Luckily, Johnson managed to reason with her and the nickname stuck.
The ‘Magic’ nickname became so synonymous with Johnson that it eventually replaced his first name altogether. Some people who genuinely follow the sport wouldn’t know who Earvin Johnson is, and if that isn’t the mark of a truly great nickname, then I don’t know what is.
But at the end of the day, is there a better word to describe how Magic played basketball? He would do things on the hardwood that would leave the entire audience rubbing their eyes and asking “how did he do that?” - To which the only response was… Magic.