Flattering Themselves

February 19, 2007

LONG BEFORE George Costanza began calling himself T-Bone, humans—and superhumans—were giving themselves nicknames, from God (who announced Himself to Moses as He Who Is) to Rod Smart (who announced himself to XFL fans as He Hate Me).

"A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man," wrote William Hazlitt, but that stone is heaviest when a man throws it at himself. The man who nicknames himself is placing a bet on the future, especially if that nickname is The Future, as Kelley Washington anointed himself at Tennessee. In four years in the NFL the Bengals wide receiver has started six games, suggesting that The Future is not wide open.

For every Ju-Yun Kim, who rebrands herself as Birdie and then does birdie the 18th hole to win the U.S. Women's Open, there are 20 Freddie (FredEx) Mitchells. If the former Eagles and Chiefs receiver is delivering anything today, it's probably Domino's.

Speaking of Domino's: Is that the franchise to which Brandon Phillips was referring when he called himself The Franchise? The second baseman has since been disenfranchised by the Indians and dealt to Cincinnati, much as Steve Francis is with his third NBA team since fancying himself Stevie Franchise.

His Knicks teammate Stephon Marbury christened himself Starbury, much as his team calls its decrepit home The World's Most Famous Arena, which in turn has hosted Michael Jackson, the self-styled King of Pop. And so it goes in sports and entertainment, through an endless, delusion-filled hall of mirrors.

Of course, athletes have always called themselves by flattering sobriquets when nobody else would oblige them: Think of Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, Lloyd (All-World) Free, Darryl (Chocolate Thunder) Dawkins.

But never before have so many been so self-smitten. The NBA is all a.k.a. The Suns' Amaré Stoudemire is STAT, for Standing Tall and Talented. Years ago Ruben Patterson labeled himself The Kobe Stopper, a nickname that backfires as frequently as your '73 El Camino.

The self-nicknaming phenomenon is a crossover from music, where it is sometimes endearing—think of Riley (Blues Boy) King—and sometimes overreaching: Anyone else catch the American Idol audition of a woman calling herself The Hotness?

In sports such nicknames almost always come back to haunt their owner. In college at Miami, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. called himself The Chosen One. Then, after a motorcycle accident wiped out his second season with the Browns, he was The Chastened One.

One way to avoid such humiliation is to nickname yourself ironically. No one will think you're a jackass if you name yourself for a jackass, as country legend Alvis Owens Jr. did when calling himself Buck, after the family mule. (In the reverse of this, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme nicknamed his filly She Hate Me, to honor Smart, his one-time teammate.)

When Mets first baseman Marv Throneberry embraced the nickname Marvelous, he was winking at his own lack of marvelosity. Wizards star Gilbert Arenas is marvelous and likes to try on nicknames like neckties. So he has called himself Mr. President, then Agent Zero and lately, for his hot hand, Hibachi. He pulls it off.

Likewise, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, who used to call himself 7-Eleven "because I'm always open." After making two catches in a game against the Ravens in his third year, he graciously conceded, "There's nothing I can say: 7-Eleven got robbed." He has since switched numerical nicknames, becoming Ocho Cinco.

Shaquille O'Neal christens himself with all the frequency—but none of the pomposity—of P. Diddy. And he backs up each new nickname. It's why Muhammad Ali is entitled to call himself GOAT: He really is the Greatest of All Time.

Even when players do make good on a boast, they should bear in mind the ravages of time. Canadian Football League slotback Milt Stegall—not content with The Touchdown Beagle—gave himself the nickname Turtle Man, a reference to his abs, which he considers to be as hard and carved as a tortoise's shell. But what will the Winnipeg Blue Bomber call himself years from now, when those abs become ab-nots?

Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman likes to refer to himself as Lights Out, and someday, surely, he'll want the lights out when his eyes fall upon his LIGHTS OUT tattoo. After all, nicknames, like tattoos, last a lifetime. Which raises a troubling question: Do you really want to be called Lights Out when you need a Clapper to turn out the lights?

If you have a comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

Athletes have always anointed themselves with nicknames (Hollywood, All-World, Chocolate Thunder), but never have so many been so self-smitten.

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)