Pistol Pete, The Mailman, The Microwave, and King James are just some of the nicknames that have been attributed to NBA players throughout the decades. Nicknames are a fun way of characterizing and caricaturizing a player’s game and persona, for ill or for good. For example, Shaquille O’Neal, who has never been shy about handing out nicknames, just nicknamed Kawhi Leonard “Sugar K” because his game is so sweet. And when Shaq dishes out a nickname it tends to stick, just ask Tim Duncan, “The Big Fundamental.”
Throughout the history of the NBA there have been a plethora of odd, unique, and catchy nicknames, a couple self-proclaimed and a couple placed upon them like a knight being honored on one knee. Some nicknames have stuck for decades, while others cannot be wiped from everyone’s psyche soon enough, but regardless of what they are, they are a fun way of describing a player’s game and character.
A few of the worst nicknames of all-time include, Sasha “The Machine” Vujacic, Ruben “The Kobe Stopper” Patterson, Bimbo Coles, and Pooh Richardson. The etymology of some these nicknames remain a mystery, but they somehow lasted throughout their entire careers, and unfortunately for many of them, fans continue to think that this is actually their real name. This is the power of a nickname. They have a way of surviving longer than termites and they can even become synonymous with your real name, or in some cases replace it.
Some of the more popular nicknames in the past have been the Hakeem the Dream, Skip to my Lou, Thunder Dan, Big Game James, and Earl the Pearl Monroe. This is a list of the top-10 nicknames of all-time. They are the nicknames that have lasted the test of time and have in some cases even preceded them.
10. Big O – Oscar Robertson
The Big O was Big-Time. This walking triple double was LeBron James before LeBron James ever was. He could shoot, he could pass, and he could rebound. He had no real holes or flaws in his game. He was a 12-time All-Star, an 11-time member of the All-NBA team, and won a MVP award during his illustrious 14-year NBA career. By the end of Oscar Robertson’s career, he averaged an amazing 25.7 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game, and 9.5 assists per game. He is arguably the most well rounded basketball player that has ever played the game.
9. The Round Mound of Rebound – Charles Barkley
Will there ever be another player under 6’6” that leads the league in rebounding? I think not. Players that are stocky tend to be a bit more unathletic than players that are skinny, while skinny players tend to be weaker than players that are stocky. Charles Barkley was not only stocky and strong, but he was athletic and agile. In the ’86-’87 season, he averaged 14.6 rebounds per game and a decade later, he averaged 13.5 rebounds per game in the ’96-’97 season. By the end of his career, he averaged 11.7 rebounds per game with his elbows flared out and legs kicked out for every rebound, earning him the name “The Round Mound of Rebound.”
8. World B. Free – Lloyd Bernard Free
World B. Free may have only been 6’2”, but he was nicknamed “World” because of his 44-inch vertical and his ridiculous high-flying dunks. Free was undervalued in the 1975 draft and was selected in the 2nd round with the 23rd pick, however, he finished his 14-year career with averages of 20.3 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, and 3.7 assists per game. In the ’79-’80 season, he even averaged as much as 30.2 points per game. There have not been as many freakishly good athletes with the height and stature in the NBA like World B. Free.
7. The Human Highlight Film – Dominique Wilkins
Imagine someone who had a 40-inch vertical, but dunked it with the ferocity of Shaquille O’Neal, and that was the Human Highlight Film Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins had so many amazing dunks during a game that they could have easily been used in a dunk contest, which gave him the nickname the Human Highlight Film. Dominique’s trademark dunk was his thunderous windmill with one or two hands. He finished his career as a 9-time All-Star and won the Slam Dunk contest twice in ’85 and ’90. If Dominique Wilkins were still playing, there would be no question that he and Blake Griffin would be on every single ESPN highlight reel per day.
6. Half Man Half Amazing – Vince Carter
Easily the best dunker of all-time, Vince Carter, Air Canada, or Half Man Half Amazing is the closest thing that the NBA has ever seen to a player on NBA Jam. Carter won the Slam Dunk Contest in 2000 and nearly tore the roof off with his unexpected and never seen before dunks. What really cemented Carter’s legacy as the best dunker of all-time was when he dunked over a 7-foot big man, Frederic Weis, during the Olympic Games. Carter has always been superhuman and other-worldly earning him the nickname, Half Man Half Amazing.
5. Dr. J – Julius Erving
Where to begin with Dr. J? Julius Erving was a surgeon on the basketball court. In a documentary called “The Doctor,” Dr. J. said that he was nicknamed the Doctor by one of his friends nicknamed the Professor. The Professor called Julius the doctor because of the way that he operated on the court on opposing defenses. Erving had power and force, but he also had grace and finesse in the air. Erving paved the way for skywalkers such as Michael Jordan and Vince Carter. He brought style and character to a game that was still relatively stiff and boring. It is no coincidence that he has won dunk titles and finished his career as a 11-time All-Star and one of the top-50 that have ever played the game.
4. Air Jordan – Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan took what Dr. J handed him and took it to another level. Jordan not only dunked it from the free throw line, but he cocked it back as well. Jordan did stuff in the air that nobody had ever seen before. He elevated while everyone else was still descending. Jordan could not only jump high, but he could hang in the air longer than everyone else. He won dunk contests, NBA championships, Olympic Gold Medals, and is hands down the best player that has ever played the game. Nike even named Jordan’s sneakers “Air Jordan’s” and they still sell like hotcakes despite the fact that Jordan retired over a decade ago. Jordan may not have fanciest nickname in the world, but he probably has one of the most famous nicknames of all-time.
3. Chocolate Thunder – Darryl Dawkins
Dawkins got the nickname “Chocolate Thunder” from Stevie Wonder. Dawkins dunked with such power and ferocity that it actually sounded like thunder. In fact, the NBA had to change its rims to breakaway rims because Dawkins actually shattered the entire backboard on two of his dunks. The 6’11” and 251 pound power forward/center was a monster on the fast break. Dawkins did not have stellar numbers throughout his career, but he was one of the best finishers the game has ever seen. When you start naming your own dunks with names like Rump Roasting, Earthquaker Shaker, and Dunk You Very Much, than you know that you have lived up to your nickname.
2. Iceman – George Gervin
George Gervin is one of the most potently efficient offensive threats that the NBA has ever seen. He had ice in his veins and his finger roll has never been duplicated. Despite being drafted in the 3rd round with the 40th overall pick, Gervin always felt like he belonged. By the time his career was over, the Iceman averaged 25.1 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, and 2.6 assists per game. He was a 9-time All Star and was nominated as one of the 50 best players of all time. His game was smooth and his moves as slippery as ice.
1. Magic – Earvin Johnson
When more people know you by your nickname than your real name, than you know that your nickname has really become a part of your identity. Earvin “Magic” Johnson is as relevant now as he was during his playing days. The 6’9” point guard was nothing like the NBA had ever seen before. Most players his size were power forwards, but Magic brought the ball up against 5’9” point guards. Yet, he was able to bring magic on the court with his Pistol Pete like passes and contagious smile. Magic brought Showtime to Los Angeles and ignited one of the most powerful offenses that the NBA has ever seen. Magic was a magician on the court and could pull out passes from behind his back or from under his legs. Magic led the league in assists 4 different seasons and when all was said and done he finished with career averages of 19.5 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game, and 11.2 assists per game.