Over the last couple of days details have emerged about the NBA’s plans to feature players’ nicknames, rather than their surnames, on the backs of some jerseys. According to the AP, the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets may wear these nickname jerseys in at least one of their four games against each other this season.
The Heat are an obvious choice for the program, with Chris Bosh (“CB4”) and Dwyane Wade (“Flash,” or the less inspired “D-Wade”) joining LeBron “King” James to form the most recognizable trio in the NBA.* (And they have Ray “Shuttlesworth” Allen, too.) The Brooklyn Nets aren’t far behind, with Paul “The Truth” Pierce, Kevin “Big Ticket” Garnett, and Deron Williams (“D-Will,” alas, though we prefer the alternatives “Slick,” “Kingpin,” and “D-Nasty”).
Despite the obviously careful execution of this scheme, commentary on the news from certain sports blogs has been noticeably jaundiced. “It’s a wonderful idea (to sell jerseys),” writes the world-weary Barry Petchesky over at Deadspin. “The NBA will finally get to showcase its best player, monikered with his nickname of choice (buy more LeBron jerseys, you drones).”
Of course it’s a ploy to sell jerseys. It is perhaps necessary to point out that the National Basketball Association is not a nonprofit, but a very large business that strives to make as much money as possible. See also, for instance, the St. Patrick’s Day and “Noche Latina” jerseys. Those products look to capitalize on a popular but unrelated holiday and a specific demographic of fans. The nickname jerseys are more in keeping with the history of the league and the sport itself. It’s a marketing ploy that actually celebrates something great about the game.
Nicknamed superstars punctuate basketball history from its early days to the present: Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Julius “Dr. J.” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson*, Glen “Big Baby” Davis—and on and on and on. We know these names because basketball spotlights individualism more than the other major team sports—and also fosters a closer relationship between its players and its fans than those sports do. Basketball teams are smaller than football or baseball squads—and the starters, in contrast to hockey, are often on the court for most of a given game. Basketball is also the most intimate of spectator sports: No bulky equipment or protective glass disguises the players; fans (those who can afford it, anyway) even sit on the court itself. The faces of star NBA players are as recognizable as their logos.
Sadly, some players have responded as foolishly to the news as Deadspin did. Kendall Marshall, a rookie last year with the Suns, lamented in a tweet, “The nickname makes it more about the individual. It’s a team sport.” But this makes little sense. For one thing, the team name isn’t going anywhere: It’s still on the front of the jersey. And individual players do have a larger impact in basketball than they do in, say, baseball or soccer. Granted, Marshall only averaged 3 points a game last year, so he knows better than most that teammates are essential.
I kid, but it’s actually non-stars like Marshall who I’m most excited to see participate in this. We know the nicknames for LeBron and Wade and players of their ilk. But presumably non-stars have nicknames, too. We just don’t know them yet. And it will be fun to learn them.
And fun is the key word here. The NBA has long distinguished itself from the NFL and by having a better sense of humor: There’s a reason that people call the NFL—which fined Chad Johnson for wearing “Ochocinco” on the back of his jersey before he changed his last name to Ochocinco (and before he changed it back again)—the “no fun league.” It takes itself too seriously.
Sports fans should celebrate a more lighthearted spirit. Sure, in this case it’s about making money—that’s what the league does. If only it always did so this cleverly.
Correction, Sept. 26, 2013: This post originally misspelled the first names of Dwyane Wade and Earvin Johnson. (Return to the corrected sentence.)