Column: The depressing evolution of NBA nicknames

Orlando guard Arron Afflalo (4) guards Oklahoma forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first half in Orlando, Fla. Feb. 7, 2014. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

Orlando guard Arron Afflalo (4) guards Oklahoma forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first half in Orlando, Fla. Feb. 7, 2014. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)


I told my mom when I was seven that I didn’t like my name. “Kevin” is a family name, and the alliteration with my last name gives it some roll off the tongue, but I was seven. When you’re seven, you like wrestling, candy and cool-sounding names — like T.J.

Yes, I wanted to be called “T.J.”

It confused my mom, and she asked me what it stood for. That question threw me off. “What does it stand for?” The hell if I know, Mom. Abbreviations are cool, and so is T.J. from Disney Channel’s cartoon “Recess.” Every seven-year old knows that, so just call me T.J. already.

Well, she didn’t call me T.J.; she called me Kevin, mostly because it was my name and “T.J.” is just two letters that sound cool together. Looking back, I think it’s funny that I assumed I could just decide what people should refer to me as, as if I had domain over something decided before I was born.

But at least I didn’t want to be called Black Mamba or The Servant.

As far as athletes go, Kevin Durant is a character. He has a preposterously long, thin frame with a torso riddled with tattoo ink and hidden under his uniform. He interacts like a kid happy to be doing what he’s doing and he plays like a scorned veteran. His abilities are mostly foreign to basketball fans, and he may be the most unselfish player to win multiple scoring titles. It’s hard to not root for Durant, and with that affection comes playful connections like nicknaming. He was the Durantula! The Slim Reaper! The nicknames resonated through fans because nicknames are designed for guys like Durant.

Except he wasn’t having it. He shot down every pun, every potential new Twitter handle, every chance to let media and fans get a step closer to knowing their buddy, Kevin. Instead, he proposed on Bill Simmon’s B.S. Report podcast during the All-Star Weekend to call him The Servant.

Now wait, before you laugh at the absolutely worst attempt at self-branding since Shaquille O’Neal’s rap album, hear Durant out. The Servant doesn’t imply that Durant wants you to picture him getting you a refill on coffee before your blueberry pancakes come out. He explained that it plays on his lovable persona: he’s an Everyman, a servant to his team and his fans.

First off, that doesn’t make it any less horrible. Second, this is clearly not going to play well against his rival’s persona, LeBron “King” James. And third, having to explain why a nickname is cool immediately makes it uncool.

But I guess this is another level in the NBA’s free fall into the pit of nickname hell. We have the dry name abbreviations [Shaq, ‘Melo, T-Mac], the initials-jersey number combinations that sound like “Star Wars” droid names [CP3, CB4] and then we have the stupefyingly bad self-appointed nicknames [Kobe Bryant’s Black Mamba, Dwyane Wade’s WOW] that only the worst kind of people would actually use when referring to these players.

This is a reflection of the current NBA culture. Whoever tells you that the me-first mentality birthed by the Allen Iverson era died hasn’t been watching television. The faces of the league are also its voices, its brains and its busy hands. The top players control the game, the commercials during it and the content you read and watch after it. They’re not businessmen, they’re a business, man. So if a reporter comes up with a catchy nickname? The player can simply kill it at the source, then handpick what he wants his newest shoe to read. “Black Mamba.” Ugh.

The last time the fans and media had control over the definition of basketball was also the last time we had a streak of iconic nicknames in the sport. Iceman. The Pearl. The Stilt. Pistol. Dr. J. Magic. Chocolate Thunder. Clyde. The Dream. Chief. Spud. Mailman. His Airness. The personalities of the league met the prose of its writers and the awe of the fans to give these players an alter ego of sorts, and it was fun.

The Servant isn’t fun for anybody.

Put down the guard, Durant. It’s not going to kill you to see some custom-made “Durantula” Thunder jerseys in the crowd, or even a photo or two of kids being the Slim Reaper for Halloween. Do what Bryant and Wade and every other micromanaging baller fail to do and let your fans decide what to call you. It wouldn’t hurt to trust them, or my name is T.J.

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