New Suns Center Marcin Gortat’s nickname, “The Polish Hammer,” is one of the better and more amusing nicknames to come through the NBA in recent years. I suppose, on the surface, there’s not much to laugh about…Gortat does hail from Poland, and “Hammer” is an apt description of his physical game, but there’s something about putting the two words together that brings a smile to my face. I want him to get together with ESPN football analyst and former quarterback Ron Jaworski, who was called “The Polish Rifle” in his playing days, and have a nice chat over some “kotlet schabowy” (that’s breaded pork cutlet, to you and me).
Basketball is a game of great nicknames. Wilt Chamberlain hated being called, “The Stilt,” because he felt it made fun of his height, but he managed to do all right with the ladies anyway. He much preferred to be called, “Dipper,” as in, “The Big.” No comment on how that went over with the fairer sex.
Like most things that are great about basketball, some of the best nicknames came out of the late, lamented American Basketball Association, which battled the NBA for the nation’s hoops attention in the 1960s and 1970s. The New York Nets not only had Julius “Doctor J” Erving, they also had another guy who felt deserving of a nickname, so he gave himself one: Larry “Mr. K” Kenon. Now, “Dr. J” and “Mr. K” sound great together, but as easy as it is to remember a television announcer shouting, “Spectacular dunk by the Doctor,” its hard to imagine the same announcer intoning, “Awesome finger roll by the Mister!” Not to be outdone, Nets Guard John Williamson dubbed himself simply, “Super.”
The ABA was also home to the immortal Levern “Jelly” Tart, the reason for whose nickname should be obvious. There was also Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, whose run-ins with the law made him bad news as much to himself as he could be to other teams. David Thompson tapped the spirit of the times with the nickname “Skywalker.” Even the coaches there had nicknames. Bobby “Slick” Leonard. “Babe” McCarthy. But my favorite nickname for an ABA player has to be James “Fly” Williams. Not for anything he did as a pro, but because when he was a college star at Austin Peay (rhymes with “whee!”), the popular chant was, “Unzip the Fly and go Peay!”
Over in the NBA, Darryl Dawkins was a nickname factory unto himself, not stopping at calling himself “Chocolate Thunder,” but nicknaming his dunks as well. His Philadelphia teammate, Lloyd Free, thought so highly of his game that he christened himself, “The Prince of Mid-Air,” and “All-World,” before suffering an attack of humility and downsizing simply to, “World B.” Free, a name he legally adopted (and you thought Chad Ochocinco was a trailblazer…Clyde “The Glide” Drexler…THAT was a Trailblazer, my friend). Seattle was home to one of the greatest-sounding nicknames ever – sharpshooting Guard “Downtown” Freddy Brown. He often played in the same backcourt as Donald “Slick” Watts, who got his nickname as much for his smooth ballhandling skills as his bald head (which was a novelty in the 1970s, believe it or not).
More people recognize Earvin Johnson by his nickname, “Magic,” than by his given name, I’ll wager. He shared the decade of the 1980s with Dominique “The Human Highlight Film” Wilkins, although anyone who’s seen Blake Griffin play this season knows that the Human Highlight Film has been digitized and gone Blu-Ray. Michael Jordan was called “Air” by some, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d ask you, “Hey, did you see Air play last night?” Then you had “The Mailman,” Karl Malone, running around – and through – everybody, and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon shaking “The Admiral,” David Robinson, out of his high-tops. And along came Shaquille O’Neal, for whom “Shaq” was not enough. Each day brought a new nickname for him (although, curiously, never “The Big Nickname”), making him the ultimate in assumed identities.
Over the years, the Suns have had their share of colorful nicknames, although many of them never reached the national consciousness. But some, like Marcin Gortat’s, had international flavors. Georgi Glouchkov, one of the first Europeans imported into the NBA, was known as “The Balkan Banger.” There was “The Hawk,” of course, Connie Hawkins, whose nickname referenced not just a shortening of his surname, but the swooping nature of his overall game. Charlie Scott despised being called, “The Tuna,” but he was the star of several Suns teams that floundered. There was “Westy,” of course, and “Truck,” the latter being the nickname of Power Forward Leonard Robinson…I suppose if my name were “Leonard,” I might look for a nickname, too. Walter Davis had one of the most perfect nicknames ever coined. Anyone who saw his long, graceful strides knew how absolutely “The Greyhound” fit him. Who could forget, “The High-yatollah of Slam-ola,” Larry Nance? Dan Majerle brought the “Thunder” with him, and Charles Barkley was “Sir Charles” long before he entered our kingdom. More recently, the Suns have featured players who saw fit to bestow nicknames on themselves, like Shawn “The Matrix” Marion and Amar’e “STAT” Stoudemire. Today, Goran Dragic’s nickname of “The Dragon” seems to be catching on, although I much prefer “Go-Go.” Indeed, the Suns have been so deep at nicknames over the years, they even had a trainer with a nickname. Remember “The Prosk?”
Now we have a “Polish Hammer” in town, and I say welcome, because a hammer, or any nationality, has been missing from the Suns’ toolbox for some time, and who can’t use a nice hammer?
But it does make me feel bad for the Suns’ other Polish alum, who didn’t stick around long and never earned a nickname. However, Macej Lampe spent so much time on the bench, I suppose we could remember him as “The Polish Paperweight.”