Birdman, Big Baby and the Greatest NBA Player Nicknames of All-Time

Jesse Pantuosco
July 03, 2020 - 11:33 am
Categories: 

What’s in a name? Everything. Nicknames are a badge of honor, a mark of acceptance and appreciation. But mostly they’re a delight, a colorful way to express our undying love of sports and the characters that drive its action. Charles Barkley may not have a ring on his finger but he’ll always be the Round Mound of Rebound (or Sir Charles, if you prefer) to his devoted fan base.

When it comes to nicknames, the more ostentatious the better. You know you’ve struck nickname gold when your basketball moniker becomes such a part of your identity that people need to Google your actual birth name. For instance, does anyone outside the small bubble of 90s hoops diehards know Jerome Williams by any other name than Junkyard Dog? And can you blame them? You can’t exactly go back to “Jerome” once the masses start calling you Junkyard Dog. That’s a forever nickname.

Narrowing the field down to 25 names was near-impossible (henceThe Deer Hunter-length list of honorable mentions you see listed below), but after sorting through a treasure trove of worthy contenders, the stage has finally been set. Welcome to nickname royalty, ladies and gentleman. You’re in the presence of kings. Act accordingly.

Rafer Alston: Skip to My Lou

The best nicknames on the AND-1 Mixtape Tour could be a whole separate article—Hotsauce, Spyda, The Professor, Escalade. But Alston, the only player (to my knowledge) to successfully make the leap from streetball to the NBA, warrants at least some recognition. The crossover-happy point guard was more journeyman than lineup staple, suiting up for six different franchises (his longest stay was a four-year stint in Houston) over the course of an 11-year NBA career. The hoops hall won’t be saving a space for Alston in Springfield, but as a playground pioneer with swag for days, Skip to My Lou (or its alternate spelling, Skip 2 My Lou) will always be a legend in my book.

Chris Andersen: Birdman

Be honest, how many of you knew Birdman’s actual name before now? Andersen was hardly an offensive force—his 5.4 career points per game average doesn’t exactly scream “Buckets.” But the 6’10” enforcer certainly made his presence felt with his flashy hairstyles (a gel-drenched Mohawk seems to be his preferred look) and equally eccentric tattoos. There’s nothing particularly avian about Andersen or his game (his mystifying botch job in the 2005 Slam Dunk Contest set the sport back years), but thanks to his Lynyrd Skynyrd-inspired neck tat, the Blinn College alum will forever live on as Birdman. Wings up.

Gilbert Arenas: Agent Zero

Gilbert Arenas driving on Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic
Photo credit Christian Petersen, Getty Images

Arenas, a three-time All-Star with the Washington Wizards, delivered plenty of on-court theatrics (and just as much controversy) over the span of his 11-year playing career. A fan favorite who could light up a gym with his considerable scoring prowess (he averaged a shade under 21 points per game for his career), Arenas’ swag could not be contained by a single nickname, which is why he also went by Hibachi (a reference to piping-hot Japanese cuisine) at the height of his NBA powers. Agent Zero, of course, is a nod to Arenas’ preferred uniform number. The genesis of that unusual number choice speaks volumes about Arenas’ underdog mentality. An unheralded second-rounder tapped by many as a future NBA flop, Arenas selected zero as a clever nod to the number of minutes experts predicted he would log at basketball’s highest level. They were only off by 19,351.

Charles Barkley: Sir Charles and The Round Mound of Rebound

Not a role model in the slightest, the outspoken, highly quotable Barkley was appointment viewing during his 90s heyday with the Phoenix Suns, one of the many combatants Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls would face on their remarkable path to six titles in an eight-year span. Basketball Reference lists the Hall of Famer at 6’6” and a husky 252 pounds, but don’t buy into that baseless propaganda. We all know Chuck (who was probably closer to 6’4”) was pushing three bills. But to Barkley’s immense credit, the portly power forward didn’t let his stocky physique obscure his path to NBA greatness. Barkley’s broken golf stroke is beyond repair but the former league MVP can still wolf down pies with the best of ‘em.

Kobe Bryant: The Black Mamba

As coldblooded as they come, there was a reptilian quality to Bryant’s on-court demeanor, a ferocious, win-at-all-costs mentality that made him among the most feared competitors of his era. Kobe was an assassin in Nikes, a dream-ruining, late-game conqueror conditioned to lull opponents into a false sense of security, only to ruthlessly rip their hearts out at the last second. Love is cruel but Bryant’s signature fade-away was crueler. Kobe’s intimidating Black Mamba moniker even inspired a spinoff nickname of sorts with fans rebranding former Celtics benchwarmer and current RADIO.COM podcaster Brian Scalabrine as the White Mamba. Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash rocked a generation of hoops fans to its core earlier this year, but as countless tributes in the following months would attest to, the Black Mamba’s legacy lives on.

DeMarcus Cousins: Boogie

What a delightfully cheerful nickname for a loose cannon like Cousins, a referee-bludgeoning havoc-wreaker with a Rasheed-esque penchant for technicals (as his 14 career ejections would attest to) and a legendary lack of chill. We haven’t seen much of the zebra-provoking Cousins lately—injury detours have temporarily taken the free-agent big man out of circulation. But it’s only a matter of time until the tantrum-prone 29-year-old resurfaces. For some, the nickname may conjure images of Roller Girl and Dirk Diggler strutting their stuff on the dance floor in San Fernando Valley (is the Kentucky alum secretly a Paul Thomas Anderson stan?), but to me “Boogie” will always be synonymous with low-post dominance and a compulsive need to spar with the whistle-clad fraternity of NBA officials.

Glen Davis: Big Baby

Davis was, to put it bluntly, a hot mess throughout his memorable, eight-year NBA tenure. And that’s what was so compelling about Big Baby, a surprisingly nimble 289-pounder with considerable big-game savvy. The tongue-rolling, saliva-dripping emotional rollercoaster suited up for the Magic and Clippers later in his career but he’ll always be best known for his four-year stint as a Boston Celtic, which included two Finals appearances, one title and a baseline buzzer-beater to stun Orlando during the 2009 playoffs.

Tim Duncan: The Big Fundamental

Tim Duncan manning the low post for San Antonio
Photo credit J Pat Carter, Getty Images

Shaquille O’Neal’s greatest NBA contribution, aside from his four championships, countless All-Star appearances and 28,596 career points, may have been his affinity for coining nicknames with “The Truth” (a title bestowed on Celtics legend Paul Pierce) and Tim Duncan’s “The Big Fundamental” among his many creations. Never the chattiest of superstars, the stoic Duncan earned every conceivable individual accolade throughout his magnificent 19-year career, building his legacy on a rigid adherence to the sport’s fundamentals. The Spurs lifer may have lacked flair, but his no-frills, by-the-books MO was no doubt effective, culminating in five titles, 15 All-Star nods and his eventual enshrinement in Springfield.

Joel Embiid: The Process

The literal centerpiece of Sam Hinkie’s abandoned “Process,” a painstaking rebuild that helped morph the laughingstock Sixers from Eastern Conference doormats to a perennial playoff team, Embiid’s career has been a slow burn, seeing the seven-footer develop from an injury-prone up-and-comer in his early years to the low-post titan he is today. Philadelphia’s grand NBA experiment, the result of many lean years in the cheesesteak capital (Hinkie’s shameless tanking even forced the league to revisit its lottery system), has yet to be realized, but if the long-suffering Sixers do reach the summit, it will be on Embiid’s broad shoulders. The Process will forever be Embiid’s calling card, though, as evidenced by recent events, the 26-year-old isn’t opposed to trying other nicknames on for size.

Richard Hamilton: Rip

Hamilton, a fixture on the juggernaut Pistons of the mid-2000s, never qualified as a superstar per se, but the instinctive two-guard was an expert at all the little things, mastering the mid-range J (a forgotten skill in today’s three-point happy NBA) while frustrating defenders with his mind-blowing ability to get open. A lockdown defender who endeared himself to fans by sporting his trademark Jason mask (the result of a twice-broken nose), Rip had his No. 32 raised to the rafters in Detroit shortly after the conclusion of his standout 14-year career, most of which was spent in the Motor City.

Tyler Hansbrough: Psycho T

A decorated college performer at UNC, Hansbrough didn’t enjoy a particularly distinguished NBA tenure (6.7 career points per game), but his lunatic intensity and signature scrappiness earned him one of the sport’s better nicknames. One of the great college hoops antagonists not just of his era but of all-time (he finished runner-up to legendary Duke heel Christian Laettner in Grantland’s 2013 bracket counting down the most hated college players of the last 30 years), the heart-on-his-sleeve Hansbrough relished his villain status in Chapel Hill, and so did all of us.

Kyrie Irving: Uncle Drew

Irving, an admitted flat-Earther who did his darnedest to try and sideswipe the NBA’s restart (he wanted to start his own league at one point), has gone off the deep end in recent years, developing a reputation as a high-maintenance locker-room headache with a lust for chaos. But when he’s not injured or twisting the knife on teammates and coaches, Uncle Drew, who earned his nickname by going undercover as a jumper-draining geriatric in a series of well-received Pepsi ads, is still an upper-echelon NBA point guard with championship pedigree. His title-sealing three to slay the mighty Warriors (who squandered an immaculate 73-9 regular season en route to one of the league’s all-time collapses) in 2016 will forever live on in Cleveland sports lore.

Kawhi Leonard: The Claw

Kawhi Leonard handling the ball for Los Angeles
Photo credit Sean M. Haffey, Getty Images

A man of precious few words, Leonard may not be quite the “fun guy” he thinks he is (laughing does not appear to be in wheelhouse), but silent assassins in the mold of Kawhi and fellow Spurs bore Tim Duncan are often the scariest. The recipient of two Finals MVPs, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and a smattering of All-NBA selections (he’s also the reigning All-Star Game MVP), Leonard and his frighteningly huge mitts are headed on a collision course for the hoops Hall of Fame. What it do, baby!

Karl Malone: The Mailman

The postal service always delivers (Seinfeld's underachieving Newman being a rare exception) and so did Malone, the second-leading scorer in NBA history behind bespectacled Lakers seven-footer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While championship glory eluded Malone, who fell short in each of his three trips to the NBA Finals, the prolific power forward did net a pair of Olympic gold medals representing the U.S. in both the 1992 Barcelona and ‘96 Atlanta Games.

Pete Maravich: Pistol Pete

One of the most explosive scorers in the history of college basketball, Pistol Pete was the embodiment of 70s hoops, an electric presence whose offensive stylings made him one of the most unique weapons of his time. A born gunslinger, the jumper-launching Maravich played like a Wild West outlaw, gutting opponents with his slick handle and limitless shooting range. Persistent injuries spelled an abrupt end to his career (he was out of the league by 32), but when his health cooperated, few were as prodigious offensively as Maravich. Who knows what mayhem would have unfolded had the LSU alum played his entire career with a three-point line, which wasn’t enacted until the late 70s.

Shawn Marion: The Matrix

As the owner of a deeply-flawed jump shot myself, I always admired Marion, who carved out a successful career on some of the most exciting teams of my lifetime (the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns were a must-watch during their mid-2000s heyday), and did it all while shooting like a complete and utter weirdo. You won’t see Marion’s bizarre shooting stroke on any instructional tapes, but what the four-time All-Star lacked in technique he more than made up for with his monster athleticism, drawing comparisons to Keanu Reaves’ trench-coat-wearing Neo from The Matrix movies. Marion never reached the promised land with Phoenix, but got there as a member of the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks in 2011.

Kevin McHale: The Black Hole

Boston has long been the mecca of sports nicknames, churning out instant classics like the Splendid Splinter (Red Sox great Ted Williams), Big Papi (clutch artist David Ortiz) and the Hick from French Lick (a reference to Larry Bird’s hometown in rural Indiana). The Celtics’ nickname factory has been at it for decades—Time Lord (the late-for-everything Robert Williams) and Dancing Bear (deceptively agile French big man Guerschon Yabusele) are two of their more recent innovations. But McHale’s “Black Hole” alias, a nod to the Hall of Famer’s notorious tunnel vision whenever teammates passed to him in the low post (aka, they were never getting it back), may be the most creative of the bunch. Here’s a knowledge bomb for you—despite being one of the most accomplished power forwards of all-time, McHale started fewer than half his career games (400 of 971). That should clue you in on how absurdly loaded the Celtics were in the 80s.

Gary Payton: The Glove

Gary Payton drives to elude Suns defender Shawn Marion
Photo credit Otto Greule Jr., Allsport

A dogged defender and one of the game’s elite trash talkers, the mouthy Payton turned the perennially underappreciated Sonics into a surprise 90s powerhouse, even landing them a date with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in the ’96 NBA Finals. Though more universally recognized for his defensive prowess (you could say he stuck to opponents like a “glove”) than his offensive output, Payton was also an adept scorer in his prime, topping the 20-point-per-game threshold on seven separate occasions. The NHL is putting down roots in Seattle and if there’s any justice in this world, the NBA will find its way back to the Emerald City sooner rather than later.

Paul Pierce: The Truth

Pierce didn’t acquire his alter ego until midway through his third season, and, as usual, Shaq had a hand in its inception. As the origin story goes, O’Neal, amazed by the Celtics star’s superhuman feats against his West-leading Los Angeles Lakers, declared Pierce “the motherf---ing truth.” The name stuck and Pierce, who would later become O’Neal’s teammate in 2010, fully embraced it, even getting The Truth tattooed on his forearm. If nothing else, the nickname gave announcers an excuse to quote Jack Nicholson’s famous line from “A Few Good Men” whenever Pierce heated up.

David Robinson: The Admiral

Robinson, one half of San Antonio’s daunting Twin Towers frontcourt (Tim Duncan was his partner in crime), took an unusual path to the NBA, arriving after a four-year stint at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The Admiral’s military background served him well in the pros as evidenced by his excellent composure under pressure and impressive leadership qualities. One of the more skilled centers of his time, Robinson enjoyed tremendous success from both team (two championships, two Olympic gold medals) and individual (10 All-Star appearances, one scoring title, one MVP) standpoints throughout his heroic 14-year NBA tenure.

Dennis Rodman: The Worm

Rodman’s appearance on ESPN’s critically-acclaimed “Last Dance” documentary (a godsend during the harrowing early days of the pandemic) reminded us all what a maniac he was in the 90s, abandoning the Bulls (in the midst of a title run, no less) to go on an impromptu bender in Vegas with his then-girlfriend Carmen Electra and AGAIN in the NBA Finals when he ditched practice to wrestle with Hulk Hogan. Though decidedly unorthodox in his approach, Rodman’s rugged rebounding and defensive tenacity were unmatched. There was nothing polished about Rodman’s game, but The Worm’s effectiveness, particularly in manning the boards, was undeniable.

Nik Stauskas: Sauce Castillo

Stauskas may not be a household name—the sharp-shooting journeyman wasn’t on an NBA roster this past season. But his Sauce Castillo alias, the result of a closed captioning snafu, is first-ballot Nickname Hall of Fame material. Does the quirky moniker lose any of its luster knowing Stauskas, who never averaged better than 9.5 points per game, was such a deeply mediocre pro? That’s a matter of opinion, but to me, Sauce Castillo is a stroke of nickname genius.

Jason Williams: White Chocolate

Jason Williams zips a pass against the Los Angeles Lakers
Photo credit Tom Hauck, Getty Images

Williams came on the scene at just the right time, coinciding perfectly with the flair explosion of the early 2000s. White Chocolate never ascended to true NBA stardom (though he did earn a ring with the Heat in 2006), but his curiosity factor was always through the roof. Williams never exceeded 15 points per game in any of his 13 professional seasons, but even if the stats didn’t convey it, the University of Florida product was one of the most entertaining players of his generation, captivating crowds with his endless bag of schoolyard tricks. No one in today’s NBA would have the stones to even attempt the hair-on-fire moves Williams pulled off on a nightly basis. If you ever have a chance to go down the YouTube rabbit hole of White Chocolate highlights, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Jerome Williams: Junkyard Dog

As a basketball player growing up, I wasn’t tall and I couldn’t shoot or dribble. That’s three strikes. But I played harder than anyone and so did Williams, who had no business lasting as long as he did (nine seasons) at the highest level of professional hoops. As White Goodman once said, it’s amazing what you can accomplish with “some elbow grease and a little can-do attitude.” Williams wasn’t the most aesthetic player to watch. He wasn’t God’s gift to scoring either, averaging an anemic 6.6 points per game for his career. But in terms of pure hustle, no one outworked the Junkyard Dog.

Nick Young: Swaggy P

Nicknames can be passed on over generations. Other times they happen more organically. And in the case of former Lakers guard Nick Young, sometimes they come from the man upstairs. “God, in a dream, talked to me, and he gave me that name,” said Young in 2014. “I’m like, ‘You know what, God? That is a funny name! I might need to run with it!’” Right. True to his word, Young has indeed run with it, using the God-given moniker as his handle on all social media. I’m tempted to ask where the P came from but you know what, Swaggy? You do you.

Honorable Mentions: Julius Erving (Dr. J), Allen Iverson (The Answer), Magic Johnson, Jeremy Lin (Linsanity), Zach Randolph (Z-Bo), Robert Traylor (Tractor Traylor)

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