“Once you gain a nickname in this league, that’s the ultimate respect” – Paul Pierce
In many cases, what Pierce said was true (see what I did there?). Many guys on this list earned their nicknames for great play on the court, and by no coincidence most of the best players in the history of the league appear on this list. Others earned their nicknames from funny commercials or movies, while still more earned them for just funny looks. We stayed away from shortening of names like “T-Mac” and “J-Kidd” or initials like “KJ,” focusing simply on the best nicknames.
Here are the 50 best in NBA history.
Joel Przybilla “Vanilla Gorilla”
David Lee “Da White Howard”
Luke Ridnour “Frodo”
Corey Brewer “The Drunken Dribbler
Mike Dunleavy, Jr. “The Natural” ??
Darko Milicic “Human Victory Cigar”
Steve Nash “Hair Canada”
Corey Maggette “Bad Porn”
Brook Lopez “Bropez”
“Chairman” Yi Jianlian
Eric “Sleepy” Floyd
Caron Butler “Tuff Juice”
Matt Bonner “Red Rocket” and “Red Mamba”
Kenny “The Jet” Smith
Stephon Marbury “Starbury”
Oscar Robertson “The Big O”
Isiah Thomas “Zeke”
Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway
Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues
Walt “Clyde” Frazier
James Worthy “Big Game James”
Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland “McFilthy” and “McNasty”
“Dollar” Bill Bradley
Marvin Webster “The Human Eraser”
*** *** ***
50. Brian Cardinal “The Custodian”
There isn’t much of an explanation for this one. Just take a look at Cardinal and the way he plays â€“ he just cleans up. He is the custodian.
49. Shawn Marion “The Matrix”
This one is a little more obvious. Shawn Marion is an athletic freak who can guard anyone from a point guard to a power forward, and used to be a steals and blocks machine (and still is to some degree in Dallas). He thrived with the Seven Seconds or Less Suns with his slashes to the basket and always seemed to slip backdoor and finish his cuts incredibly fast. This is one of those nicknames that just works.
48. Glen Davis “Big Baby”
Talk about the perfect nickname. The guy is huge, has chubby cheeks, and he’ll never be in the running for the most mature player in the league. This video needs no description.
47. Marcin Gortat “The Polish Hammer”
This nickname is just funny. Gortat is a solid NBA center who will throw down a mean dunk from time to time, and he hails from Poland. The Polish Hammer it is.
46. Corliss Williamson “Big Nasty”
Corliss Williamson was never a star in the NBA, but that didn’t stop him from having one of the great NBA nicknames. He won a championship in 2003-04 with the Pistons, and his unpleasant (to put it lightly) demeanor on the court was well worthy of this great nickname.
45. Robert “Tractor” Traylor
Robert Traylor was a mammoth person, at 6-8 and 300 pounds with enormous hands and feet. He was as big as some tractor-trailers. The enormity of Traylor’s stature did not stop at just his size, as he had a big personality as well, described by many who knew him as a gentle giant.
44. Gerald Wallace “Crash”
Gerald Wallace plays with reckless abandon and this name fits him perfectly. Wallace always plays with no regard for his body, which has been to his detriment in some situations by leading to injury issues. However, at the end of the day, it is hard to fault a guy for giving 100 percent all of the time.
43. Rafer Alston “Skip to my Lou”
This nickname was earned on the AND1 Mixtape tour, but transferred to the NBA hardwood as well. Skip did suffer from the more stringent travel calls in the league, but was still a solid player in the Association. Regardless, people will always remember his fantastic nickname (that he got after one of his moves) and what he did as one of streetball’s brightest stars.
42. Chris Kaman “The Caveman”
Another one that needs no description. This dude looks like a caveman.
41. Dennis Rodman “The Worm”
Dennis Rodman’s friends nicknamed him “The Worm” after watching him squirm playing arcade games as a kid. The moniker doesn’t exactly translate to great defense or rebounding, but the name just seems to fit Rodman. Sorry about the music but this video is great.
40. Steve Francis “Franchise”
Steve Francis was one of the best young guards in the early 2000s. He was a highflyer and could both score the rock and dish it. Francis averaged 19 points, six rebounds and six assists per contest over the first six years of his career and was the ideal franchise guard to build around…or so it seemed. The Rockets jumped at the chance to trade Francis to Orlando for Tracy McGrady. It is hard to blame the Rockets, and Francis soon began to tail off, making the move look good in hindsight. The name stuck with Francis for the duration of his career, but his best years came as the face of the franchise those first few seasons in Houston.
39. Jerry West “The Logo”
Jerry West was one of the most respected players in the history of the league. He was regarded as extremely clutch, although his teams regularly fell short to more talented Celtics teams. After the 1969 Finals, when West played through a leg injury and put up 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists, Bill Russell proclaimed, “Los Angeles has not won the championship, but Jerry West is a champion.” What better guy to be etched in stone as the logo of the league we know and love.
38. Chris Andersen “Birdman”
Chris Andersen doesn’t have near the talent level of some of the guys on this list, but he does have a fantastic nickname. He has taken the title to heart, tattooing wings onto his arms and flapping them around whenever he makes a big play. He even styles his hair in a bird-like fashion!
37. Bryant Reeves “Big Country”
Bryant Reeves was an enormous human, standing at seven feet tall and listed at 275 pounds (are we sure that’s not kilograms?). Big Country posted great numbers in his second year in the league at 16.2 points and 8.1 rebounds, and was rewarded with a six-year, $65 million deal. Injury woes plagued the rest of his career and he had to retire in 2001. Reeves was a great character and has been much maligned, especially in Vancouver, but was turning into a great player before injuries (and weight problems) derailed his career. Nevertheless, he will live on in NBA lore for one of the best nicknames the league has ever seen.
36. Lance Stephenson “Born Ready”
Lance Stephenson dominated the New York City high school circuit where he earned this nickname. However, in college and his first couple years in the NBA, he was nowhere near ready. Through a lot of hard work he has turned himself into a very valuable player for the Pacers, but he most definitely was not born into it. It is a great nickname, but in Stephenson’s case, might not be the most appropriate.
35. Vinnie Johnson “The Microwave”
One of the best nicknames for a basketball player, Vinnie Johnson was bestowed the nickname of “The Microwave” by Celtics guard Danny Ainge. Johnson came off the bench for the Bad Boy Pistons and could heat up in a hurry â€“ think of an ’80s version of Jamal Crawford. Great call by Danny.
34. Robert Horry “Big Shot Bob”
All Robert Horry did was hit big shots. With the exception of a short stint in Phoenix, Horry won wherever he went. He was never the primary option on any of his teams, but winning seven championship rings over three different stops says something about what this guys brings to the table. Sabermetricians can say what they want, but Horry was clutch. He certainly earned this nickname.
33. “Pistol” Pete Maravich
Pete Maravich’s nickname worked on so many levels. He first was called Pistol for his low and to-the-side shooting motion, but it then came to embody his gunslinger’s mentality on the court. Maravich seemed to play without a care in the world, never hesitating to make the razzle-dazzle play. Sometimes, looking for the highlight can be a detriment. Not for Maravich, who averaged over 24 points and almost 5.5 assists per game over his 11 seasons in the league.
32. Zach Randolph “Z-Bo”
Zach Randolph is a bully, but in the good on-the-court way, not the Richie Incognito way. Randolph is a beast on the block and uses great positioning and strength to abuse defenders on the block. He was named Z-Bo after the character Deebo from the movie Friday, because he was always a huge kid growing up and patrolled the neighborhood in a beach cruiser. Sounds like the name worked then, and it certainly works now.
31. LeBron James “King”
LeBron James doesn’t have the most creative nickname, but he does rule over the NBA. He is the best player in the league by a wide stretch, and is on a quest for a three-peat this season. Many have argued that his nickname was self-proclaimed and that he was dubbed the chosen one far too young, but you can’t deny LeBron’s accomplishments to this point. He is in the middle of his prime and showing no signs of slowing down. A true king.
30. Robert Parish “The Chief”
Robert Parish is a stoic guy who always seemed to keep to himself, and temmate Cedric Maxwell nicknamed Parish “The Chief” after the character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the movie, the Chief was a mute who pretended not to understand when anyone tried to talk to him (and was actually a solid baller too when Jack Nicholson showed him how to play). Parish could play a little bit himself, and was a part of the Big Three in Boston that won three titles in the 1980s.
29. Ray Allen “Jesus Shuttlesworth”
Ray Allen’s performance in He Got Game was one of the best by a basketball player in Hollywood. Allen played Jesus Shuttlesworth, a high school senior trying to decide where to play his college ball. Jesus was a celebrity, and the name has followed Allen everywhere he has gone (even leading to this video after Game 6 in last year’s Finals). Great movie, great player, great movie name, great nickname.
28. Wilt Chamberlain “The Big Dipper”
Wilt Chamberlain inspired many nicknames â€“ what else do you expect from one of the most dominant forces the league has ever seen? He was commonly referred to as “Wilt the Stilt,” but did not like that moniker because it called attention to his height. He preferred “The Big Dipper,” which referred to how he always had to dip his head through doorways (which indirectly referred to his height anyways). Either way, I don’t think Chamberlain minded his height too much when it helped him average 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds in the 1961-62 season.
27. Bob Cousy “The Houdini of the Hardwood”
Bob Cousy could handle the ball like none other in his era. He led the league in assists for eight years running and won six titles along the way. Cousy was “Magic” before Magic Johnson came along and was named for the greatest magician of the time. People couldn’t believe what he could do with the basketball, and he paved the way for all the great point guards down the line.
26. Nate “Tiny” Archibald
Nate Archibald was generously listed at 6-1 and weighed only 150 pounds. He was lightning quick and used his small stature to get places where many other guards could not, helping him become the only guy in league history to lead the league in both points and assists in the same season. One of the most obvious nicknames of the group, this one fits perfectly.
25. John Havlicek “Hondo”
John Havlicek was nicknamed “Hondo” after the John Wayne movie of the same name, due to Havlicek’s resemblance to Wayne’s character in the movie. Hondo’s incredible stamina made him a dynamic player on both ends of the floor â€“ he is still the Celtics all-time leader in career points. Havlicek does not get his due nationally, especially for a guy with eight championship rings.
24. Gary Payton “The Glove”
Gary Payton got his nickname while locking up Kevin Johnson in the 1993 Western Conference Finals. After a rough night for KJ, Payton’s cousin called and said he was “holding Johnson like a baseball in a glove,” and the name stuck. Payton is heralded as one of the best defenders at the guard position in the history of the game. He was on the All-Defensive team nine different times and is the only point guard to ever win the Defensive Player of the Year award. Payton was a great player on the offensive end as well, but defense is where he made his money. Even better, Payton’s son, who just committed to Oregon State, is nicknamed “The Mitten.” I like it.
23. Darryl Dawkins “Chocolate Thunder”
Thunder was the perfect name for Darryl Dawkins. The guy was a monster. He stood at 6-11 and 275 pounds. Dawkins is known for smashing two backboards in a three-week span in 1979. Dawkins claimed the first was an accident, and a few weeks later wanted to try to do it for the home crowd in Philadelphia as well. He succeeded, and the fans loved it. Dawkins was quite the character, naming all his dunks with wacky names.
In an interview with Dime, Dawkins claimed Stevie Wonder gave him the “Chocolate Thunder” nickname, but it’s hard to know anything for sure with Dawkins. He once said, “Everybody says a dunk is only two points, but it gets your team hyped, gets the crowd all excited and takes the starch out of other teams, especially when you dunk on somebody. And I always dunked on somebody.” I’d say “Chocolate Thunder” works.
22. Earl “The Pearl” Monroe
In his book, Earl The Pearl: My Story, Monroe says he got his nickname from a sportswriter covering his games while he was in college at Winston-Salem State. Monroe had a string of 12 games in a row with over 40 points that the writer regarded as “Earl’s Pearls,” which soon transformed into “Earl the Pearl.” The name sounds very nice phonetically, and there are certainly worse ways to get a nickname than a writer describing 12 straight games over 40 points.
21. Tim Duncan “The Big Fundamental”
Tim Duncan has been all about fundamentals since he came into the league in 1997. He has never worried about flashy play or starring in movies or really any off-the-court endeavors. His only concern is winning. He plays the game the right way, and has had plenty of success doing it. Duncan will never be the most entertaining player, but I’m sure that doesn’t cross his mind when he stares at his four championship rings.
20. Paul Pierce “The Truth”
In Paul Pierce’s third season, he returned to his hometown in Los Angeles to play the Lakers, the reigning champs. The Lakers won the game by five, but the story of the game was Pierce, who posted 42 points in the loss. After the game, Shaq proclaimed, “Paul Pierce is the motherf—— truth.” Pierce hadn’t gotten much national publicity up to that point, and Shaq’s words went a long way and the name stuck. His game was and is no lie. Paul Pierce is the truth. Watch the video for the full story.
19. Jason Williams “White Chocolate”
Jason Williams played up the fact he was a white boy (even tattooing the letters onto his knuckles) but played with inner city flair. He was always looking to make the extraordinary play and had the most incredible handles. He had the ball on a string and had great court vision to boot. He was totally unselfish and the Kings thrived when they had the great passing lineups of Williams along with Chris Webber and Vlade Divac. Williams didn’t initially play with the smarts and intangibles announcers typically reserve for white players, and the nickname “White Chocolate” fit him perfectly.
18. Larry Johnson “Grandmama”
This nickname has nothing to do with Johnson’s play on the court. He starred in this series of commercials for converse where he dressed as a grandmother (excuse me, Grandmama) who could play hoops thanks to her shoes. Johnson was a good player and a two-time All-Star, but will be remembered primarily for his hilarious portrayal of “Grandmama” in these Converse commercials, which in some ways served as predecessors to the great Uncle Drew ads of today.
17. Shaquille O’Neal “Diesel” and 20 others
Shaquille O’Neal certainly has more nicknames than any other player in NBA history. He has many that were bestowed upon him, and even more he declared for himself. At one press conference, he came to the podium and just dubbed himself “the Big Aristotle,” and now he is referred to as such all the time. He was called the Big Shaqtus while in Phoenix and The Big Shamrock in Boston. Shaq is such a great character that he can never have enough nicknames. At the end of the day, Diesel is what he is best known as, and rightly so. He was like a mack truck out there on the court, and just abused defenders night in and night out. Shaq was, and still is, Diesel.
16. Charles Barkley “Round Mound of Rebound”
Also known as “Sir Charles,” Barkley was a beast on the boards. He didn’t always have the best physique and may have been a little overweight at some times, but he was incredibly strong as well. He was phenomenal at getting position and using his girth to get every rebound in sight. Barkley was no more than 6-4 but still averaged almost 12 rebounds a game for his career. A thick guy with a sense of humor who could board up? The Round Mound of Rebound it is.
15. Vince Carter “Air Canada”
Vince Carter is one of, if not the best, dunkers of all time. Also called “Half-Man Half-Amazing,” he put on a show for the ages in the 2000 dunk contest with his 360 windmill and through-the-legs alley-oop off the bounce. In terms of dunking, he followed in Michael Jordan‘s footsteps, which led to the nickname “Air Canada” after he started his career in Toronto. Any of these dunks in Carter’s top 100 would make it into pretty much anyone else’s top 10. Amazing indeed.
14. Clyde Drexler “The Glide”
Clyde the Glide. It just works. Drexler was such a smooth player. He moved with such ease on the basketball court to the point it almost seemed effortless as he glided across the hardwood. Despite all that, where Drexler’s nickname came about was watching him soar through the air. Drexler had some of the most spectacular dunks the league has seen, and his windmill is one of the best. Watch here for the best rendition of Drexler gliding. It looks like he is in the air for five seconds.
13. George Gervin “The Iceman”
George Gervin was nicknamed “The Iceman” for how cool he was on the court and his remarkable ability to never sweat, even after a full practice or game. Check out some of his highlights and you’ll see a guy who is cool as a cucumber, evidenced by some of the craziest finger rolls you’ll ever see (check out the 3:30 mark in the video below). He even took finger rolls from as far as the free throw line! Gervin was a cool guy who played his own style. He had ice in his veins, and the nickname was well-deserved.
12. David Robinson “The Admiral”
Robinson served in the Navy, making this nickname an obvious one. However, with the way he carries himself, it would have fit him anyway. Robinson was as calm and collected as they come, looking almost majestic as he flew down the floor. He was a massive man who was just a freak of nature. Robinson was an all-around good guy and leader and helped groom the best power forward ever. Great man and great player. There was no one better who deserved this title.
11. Kevin Garnett “The Big Ticket”
Kevin Garnett gives it his all every time out on the court. He earned the moniker “Big Ticket” in his early days in Minnesota as he was the only reason fans came to the Target Center. Fans always got their money’s worth with Garnett. He never took a play off and would do anything and everything to win a game. It also didn’t hurt that he put up monster numbers and was good for a thunderous slam or big time block every night out. The Ticket is at the latter stages of his career but is still worth the price of admission.
10. Larry Bird “Larry Legend”
You have to be pretty good to be referred to as a legend. But to have it in your nickname? That is special. And special is just what Larry Bird was. Also called “The Hick from French Lick,” Bird could do so many things on the court. He couldn’t run the fastest or jump the highest, but he had a very high basketball IQ and the heart of a lion. He had the prettiest stroke and was confident beyond all measures, once asking the other contestants in the three-point shooting contest who was there to finish in second. Bird was legendary.
9. Dominique Wilkins “The Human Highlight Reel”
Dominique went into games looking to put someone on a poster. He is one of the most powerful dunkers the league has ever seen. Vince Carter gave him some competition, but no one threw down a windmill like Dominique Wilkins. He dunked with such power but also was able to put in a semblance of grace. He had some incredible games like his duel with Larry Bird in 1988, but at the end of the day, Wilkins was known for his dunks. Every time out, Wilkins made a play worthy of the highlight reel. The nickname speaks for itself.
8. Hakeem Olajuwon “The Dream”
Hakeem Olajuwon grew up playing soccer, which helped develop his incredible footwork. He was 6-10 and had a huge wingspan and enormous hands. He had the softest touch on his fadeaway jumper and was an impeccable defender, one of the best of all time. He was also a great leader and a great person. Hakeem Olajuwon was the dream center. He could do it all, and proved it while leading the Rockets to two championships in the mid-90s.
7. Karl Malone “The Mailman”
Karl Malone was a big-time bruiser but also had a soft touch on his jumper. He was one of the first guys to truly embrace weightlifting and kept himself in remarkable shape â€“ making him one of the most durable stars in NBA history. Where Malone made his mark was off the pick and roll with his buddy John Stockton. Malone would either pop for a quick jumper or roll HARD to the basket for a thunderous finish. Either way, Malone delivered.
6. Allen Iverson “The Answer”
Allen Iverson was the answer to plenty of questions. After two years at Georgetown, he came to Philadelphia with a lot of hype and was unlike anyone the league had ever seen. He was someone a lot of fans could relate to â€“ he seemed like a guy you’d see playing at the park, and he acted like it, too. He was a small guy but had an enormous heart. He was constantly fouled hard, but every time managed to pick himself up. He dragged a sorry supporting cast all the way to the Finals in 2001, where he reminded us that he’s “way too good!” Whether it was for the city of Philadelphia, questions on practice, or who was a four-time scoring champ and MVP, the answer was always Allen Iverson.
5. Kobe Bryant “The Black Mamba”
Now this nickname probably should be a little lower because Kobe did give it to himself, but that doesn’t impact its accuracy. Black mamba snakes are some of the most venomous in the world, as well as extremely aggressive. They are the fastest snake species and can pounce at a moment’s notice. Sounds like Kobe to me. The guy is a stone-cold killer, and a fast, venomous snake is certainly an apt moniker.
5b. Brian Scalabrine “The White Mamba”
Scal may not be on the same scale as Kobe, but he has earned this nickname in his own right. Look how good these high fives were!
4. Shawn Kemp “The Reignman”
Shawn Kemp’s career certainly spiraled out of control quickly as he aged. But in his prime, he was a highflyer with the best of them. Kemp might have the best top 10 in-game dunk compilation of anyone in NBA history. He finished all sorts of alley-oops from Gary Payton and did reign over the league (or at least the Western Conference) for several years in Seattle, and may have won a championship if not for a guy you will see very shortly. The double-meaning of the nickname with all the rain in Seattle is just the cherry on top for one of the greatest nicknames in NBA history.
3. Michael Jordan “Air Jordan”
Michael Jordan had more nicknames than just about everyone, save Shaq. Everyone was just looking for a way to describe the guy because he did something extraordinary every night of the court. The most famous of those monikers was and still is “Air Jordan.” It is not the most innovative of nicknames, but it is one that has stuck and become an icon. The image of Jordan soaring to the rim with legs spread wide is synonymous with the nickname, and it is just transcendent. It will live on for generations. Jordan could fly, and along with being one of the best in-game dunkers ever was no slouch in dunk contests, either. Watching him soar from the free throw line made it look like he actually could fly. I wouldn’t put it past him. Ask R. Kelly.
“Look at the flying motion!” At 1:50.
2. Julius Erving “The Doctor” and “Dr. J”
The Doctor. There were many theories as to how Julius Irving received his fantastic nickname, but he finally revealed the true origin in the fantastic NBATV documentary titled The Doctor. Growing up on Long Island, Erving called his friend “The Professor” for how he would always argue on the court and explain his position in extreme detail. “The Professor” returned the favor to Julius and called him “The Doctor” for how he could operate on opposing defenses. The nickname stuck, and was shortened to Dr. J in the ABA. Dr. J was one of the first players to turn the dunk into an art form, and just reeked of cool. That makes his nickname second best on this list.
1. Earvin “Magic” Johnson
Most people probably think “Magic” is on Earvin Johnson’s birth certificate. Other than the esteemed Mike Wilbon (who seems to think he knows Magic on a different level than anyone else), everyone calls him Magic. It’s just who he is. And it couldn’t be a more apt nickname. Magic was a wizard with the basketball, making some of the most amazing passes the league has ever seen. He was one of the tallest point guards in league history and had the best court vision of all time. Magic led the Showtime Lakers with his big smile, and was just perfect for L.A. For all those reasons, “Magic” Johnson is the best nickname in NBA history.
What do you think is the best nickname in NBA history?
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