From the Archives: What’s In a Name? Our Favorite Sports Nicknames

Originally Posted December 3, 2020

No one does sports (plural) better than the United States. Sure, other parts of the world do soccer better, but as far as high quality on multiple levels, no one does sports better than the United State. The US also has a rich history of giving sports stars nicknames. Hell, George Herman Ruth was so nicknamed that there’s a whole memorable scene about it in The Sandlot. The point is that we love a good sports nickname, and in that spirit, Blaze and Ben discuss some of their favorite sports nicknames:

Randy Johnson: The Big Unit (Blaze)

6’10”, a languid yet explosive delivery, a repulsive mullet, and a literal killer on the mound all make The Big Unit one of the most badass nicknames and personalities in all of sports.  Growing up, I favored pitchers like Greg Maddux who could dominate hitters with precision and control, but Randy Johnson’s sheer power and intimidation factor were so magnetic and unique.  As a diminutive lefty, I shutter to think how I’d be quaking at the plate, getting ready to stare down his sidearm slider; a three pitch strikeout looking would be the ideal outcome there.  But the days of the true innings eating starter seem to be fading away from us, and we’ll likely never get a force like the Big Unit again. Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson also scores highly on the Potential Innuendo Index.

Honorable Mention “Big…” Nicknames: 

  • Kevin Garnett: The Big Ticket
  • Walter “Big Train” Johnson
  • Tim Duncan: The Big Fundamental (Thank you, Shaq)

Charles Barkley: The Round Mound of Rebound (Ben)

Chuck was also occasionally known as Sir Charles, but I have also been of the opinion that the vaguely regal connotations of such a title are contrary to Barkley’s rough-and-tumble everyman style. In college Barkley, whose height is sometimes disputed but is generally given as either 6’4”, or 6’5”, or 6’6”, was a tad on the chunky side, but manages to outplay opponents with a combination of basketball IQ and unmatched tenacity. In an era that included great big men such as David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal (not to mention bruisers like Bill Laimbeer, Kevin McHale, and Shawn Kemp), the comparatively diminutive Barkley managed to average a shade under 12 rebounds a game (including league best 14.6/game in 1987). He’s fat, he’s tough, he’s surprisingly athletic, and he sucks at golf: he’s the average American male.

Joe Namath: Broadway Joe (Blaze)

This is just about the most hand-in-glove personality and nickname out there (slightly ahead of the next name on my list).  If you can rock a fur coat (in your 20s and your 70s), have the stones to call your shot in the biggest game of your career, and have enough swagger to make Han Solo seem modest, you’re fit to rule New York.  “Broadway Joe” just flows beautifully as well (something like “Broadway Bart” Starr doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.)  Joe maximized the fast-paced lifestyle of the Big Apple and drew up the blueprint for future kings of Manhattan like Derek Jeter.

Larry Bird: The Hick from French Lick (Ben)

Beautiful. One of the all-time most succinctly descriptive nicknames ever. The only one more succinct and true is Stan “The Man” Musial, who was in fact a man. Look, Larry Bird is a hick. Have you ever heard him talk or read his writings or looked at a picture of him not in a basketball uniform? He’s a hick. He’s like the model of an American man that a British newspaper would use to make a cartoon character out of in some article saying Americans have no subtlety or culture. He drove a truck, he dipped smokeless tobacco, he cussed like a sailor, he mowed his own lawn during his NBA career, and he once injured his back shoveling gravel at his mother’s house in the offseason. So, that takes care of the “hick” part. He was also from French Lick, Indiana, which rounds out the nickname. A great player, a hick from Indiana, and carrier of an all-time great nickname.

Earvin Johnson: Magic (Blaze)

This one almost feels like cheating.  It’s as obvious as most of Earvin’s sports takes. Much like Broadway Joe, Magic in Los Angeles couldn’t have been a better sports marriage.  The Showtime Lakers made basketball incredibly fun to watch, and Magic was the undisputed engine of that machine.  His brilliant passing and glitzy playmaking were one of a kind at the time and to this day.  

Frank Thomas: The Big Hurt (Ben)

Remember the Steroid Era? Everyone hit a million homeruns, everyone hated Roger Clemens, everyone rocked a great mullet-mustache-wraparound shades combo, and everyone took drugs to allow them to hit the ball a mile. But then there’s Frank Thomas. Same era, same homeruns, same hatred of Clemens, but no mullet, no stache, and no drugs for the Big Hurt. He was called “big” because he was listed at 6’5”, 275lbs. He was called “hurt” because that’s what he did to others in baseball diamonds. He’d hurt the ball, he’d hurt the opponent’s fanbase, and he’d hurt any pitcher’s ego. He’s one of only nine players to ever hit 500 homeruns and maintain a .300 batting average (the others, FYI, are Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Lott, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Pujols (though, technically Manny and Pujols could possibly lose this distinction)). He was never once accused of using drugs, and may have the most impressive batting statistics in the era next to Tony Gwynn because of his clean living. Perhaps most importantly, he had one of the better Sega Genesis sports games. The Big Hurt is a simple but fitting nickname for a guy who is often overlooked as being above the fray in the era of corruption and steroids.

Water Payton: Sweetness (Blaze)

Walter Payton wasn’t the fastest nor most powerful runner, yet he was always a home run threat and a bulldozer of a ball carrier.  Something about his running style and moves truly was just sweet to watch.  For someone who never shied away from contact, the name packs some nice irony as well.  And though he was an imposing runner, he always came across as a gentle man when you’d hear him speak.  “Sweetness” strikes a nice balance of his beautiful game and tender persona.

Reggie White: The Minister of Defense (Ben)

Reggie White is perhaps best known for being the baddest defensive player on the Super Bowl XXXI champion Green Bay Packers. He was a force to be reckoned with, amassing over 1,400 tackles (198 of which were sacks) during his career. He was also a devout Christian and ordained minister, which provided the “minister” part of the nickname. That’s what makes the nickname so great. The Minister of Defense (or “Defence” in less civilized parts of the English-speaking world) is a decidedly un-American political post. We don’t have “ministers” in our government; we have secretaries. Leave that “minister” crap to the UK, Canada, and Australia. So at first, the nickname sounds a little unpatriotic. But then you learn that it’s a play on the political post by using his Christian background, and the nickname is suddenly great. It’s American because it celebrates God and football.

Andrei Kirilenko: AK-47 (Blaze)

What we have here is one of the great achievements in human creativity.  Andrei Kirilenko, from Russia, wearing #47, and begging to be compared to a deadly weapon that was created in his motherland.  He looked like Ivan Drago’s second cousin and brought a quirky but effective game stateside.  You always felt like the smartest guy in the room when you picked Andrei in your fantasy draft.  He was a stat sheet stuffer, and the only thing missing from this fusion of name and game is that he wasn’t a deadeye shooter. Get it?

Darryl Dawkins: Chocolate Thunder (Ben)

There is only one thing you need to know about this nickname to justify its inclusion on this list: it was given to Darryl Dawkins by none other than Stevie Wonder. Darryl Dawkins was so good at forcing a basketball through a hoop that a dude who couldn’t even see it happen felt it enough to christen the man Chocolate Thunder.

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