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We Can’t Lose Any More Basketball Joy, Starting with Nicknames

Let’s have fun with nicknames again.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves - Game Three Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

There’s a part of NBA 2K that I don’t think anyone really used, but I loved.

It wasn’t MyLeague, although I sunk my fair share of hours into hypotheticals that have since become articles instead of hours spent simulation seasons. It wasn’t the Park, which was made impossible for me by my less than ideal wifi connection. It certainly wasn’t the MyGM career, as a “David Kahn ‘make your employees hate you’ simulator” was never really a good idea to begin with. It was the tiniest part of setting up your MyPlayer. Hidden behind min-maxing measurables and giving yourself the mohawk your parents never allowed was my favorite little detail: the nickname setter.

Considering the millions of players who buy the game, 2K put in this little feature for next to no reason. The MyCareer story always has a name it pins to the player like a tail on a donkey, but this one was one I could choose, and hearing it over the game’s PA always brought me joy.

And I always, always picked the dumbest nickname possible.

Something else I’ve spent a lot of time on is Basketball Reference, or Wikipedia, or whatever other records sports information exist. While it has helped immensely with the viral sensation of the NBA Grid Challenge, it was more so done with some sense of childlike wonder. Here, at the wait of my fingertips, was all the information in the world and all I wanted to know about were names like Lucas Nogueira, Rajon Rondo, Dražen Petrović, and whoever else I have ingrained in my memory forever (I mean, I just used Ekpe Udoh and Tyler Cook in one of those grids, this information is stuck with me, for better or worse).

And, just as it was with the hidden menu in 2K, tucked in at the top of the page, below the name, position, and that important information and above the stats, averages, and that other equally important information were the nicknames again.

See, I feel like we’ve lost something.

This was on my mind when the objectively hilarious nickname of “Seatbelt” was offered up for Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels before it was not just snuffed out, but eviscerated off of the face of the Earth (or at least Twitter). Throughout the development of an online discussion of sports, everything has become way too serious. No one calls Anthony Davis “the Brow” anymore; they call him AD. No one calls Luka Doncic “the Matador,” instead opting for Luka. Most damningly, no one calls Kevin Durant “Slim Reaper” or “Durantula” anymore, which are both so much more fun than a simple set of initials in KD.

Every nickname has become a literal interpretation of something the player does or is simply just their name. I don’t think we can get any more all-time great nicknames like this. If this continues, there is no new “Round Mound of Rebound.” There is no “Big Diesel.” There is no “Magic.” This is not to exempt the past generations. I can point back to “Z-Bo” (Zach Randolph) and “Cutt” (Cuttino Mobley) or go even further to “Larry Legend” (Larry Bird) and “Pistol Pete” (Pete Maravich), but this is just to say that we’ve gone further in the wrong direction.

My favorite part of the 2K nicknames was how ridiculous the voices of Greg Anthony and Kevin Harlan would sound trying to force out “A-Train” or “Garbage Man” or, as my player was known, “Boomer.” That was ultimately all it was; the sheer ridiculous stupidity of some nicknames made me feel like I was a kid again, like everything was simpler. I think that’s what we’re losing in streamlining our nicknames: the simple joy of laughing at something ridiculous and a little stupid.

So, let’s go back to “Seatbelt.” It’s a great nickname. It opens up a lot of stuff for Timberwolves play-by-play announcer Michael Grady. Imagine the catchphrases:

  • “Click It or Ticket”
  • “Buckled up by Seatbelt”
  • or the great nickname explanation calls, “That’s why they call him “Seatbelt,” you can’t drive without him there.”

It’s good, simple fun. And it’s seemingly a nickname Jaden likes, which makes it even funnier.

What it isn’t, however, is intimidating. It is no venomous snake. It is no wildebeest. It is certainly not an embodiment of death (quite the opposite actually). However, I don’t think nicknames need to be intimidating for the player to be. If we want to talk about intimidating presences, I can think of few names that fit better than former Wolf and karate black belt James Johnson. His nickname is “bloodsport.” Okay, bad example. But, many enforcers have had completely non-threatening nicknames. Charles “Oak Tree” Oakley was nicknamed after a tree known for its stoicism. Draymond “Dancing Bear” Green is named after a carnival attraction. Bill Laimbeer is literally nicknamed after the animal in the saying “quiet as a lamb.” They’d still flip you on a drive if they felt like it.

Jaden is not nearly so violent as a player, nor is he at all participatory in an enforcer role, but I refuse to believe a nickname has any more than a marginal on-court effect. Matchups aren’t going to be scared of the Seatbelt moniker, they’ll be scared of Jaden freaking McDaniels. Nicknames are for the fans, so let’s have some fun with it.

It’s for that reason that I not only continue to support the Seatbelt nickname but want to double down. Many titles have been proposed for promising Wolves rookie Leonard Miller. Let me throw my hat into the ring as well. Leonard Miller’s nickname should be “The Grindstone.”

Every mill has a grindstone and every Miller uses it. His play style is the embodiment of grit and the phrase “nose to the grindstone.” He’s an extremely hard worker. He’s a high-effort player with a ridiculous blend of touch and brute strength. He is “The Grindstone.”

Let’s have fun with nicknames again. Let’s be stupid and childish. Let’s overthink flawed, illogical reasonings. Twitter GMs, myself included, have made basketball discourse so professional that we’ve lost some of the spaces to be fans. Nicknames should be that. Let’s make it that.