The Greatest Knick-names Ever
It's the middle of the summer. Let's have some fun.
Good morning! I hope the dog days of summer are treating you well. As I wrote last week, I’m taking a little break this week for some vacation time with the family, but don’t worry…there’s still five newsletters coming your way: a two-part “Knick You Knew” to end the week, a way-too-early, two-part Knicks preview tomorrow and Wednesday, and what I have in store today, which is a column I enjoyed researching and writing more than anything in quite a while.
Before we get to that, some news: James Harden of all people broke the fact that the Knicks will be playing on Christmas, against the Sixers, at MSG. This was later confirmed by Marc Stein, so leave out some extra milk and cookies for the Beard.
That’s it for updates…now let’s have some fun…
The Greatest Knick-names Ever
Today’s question comes from Matthew:
Where do you rank all time Knicks nicknames? My personal favorite is Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams. And to add a more complicated layer onto that, if you so choose, how would you rank them when considering the proportion of great nickname to success on the Knicks? Ex: French Prince is a better nickname than Nate the Great, but Nate Robinson’s Knicks career surpasses Frank’s career (of which I was a huge fan, Frank hive forever) and would probably give Nate the edge in my mind.
When I saw this question come across my email, I became irrationally excited, as I knew it would give me an excuse to engage in my favorite pastime: wasting countless hours on Basketball Reference.
Basketball Reference, in addition to listing all of the relevant stats associated with anyone who’s ever played in the NBA, also lists their nicknames with something close to perfect accuracy.
(Not completely perfect though; I was appalled when I noticed one particular nickname missing from a certain player page, which I’ll get to later.)
Before we get to the results of my search, we need to set some ground rules to guide this process, because otherwise the entire exercise will collapse under the weight of its own enormity.
First off: Many nicknames are merely shortened versions of a player’s actual name. Sometimes, as in the case of the nickname I have at No. 1, there’s more too it than initially meets the eye. Most of the time though, it’s just feels lazy. For this reason, nicknames not appearing on my list include Spree (Latrell Sprewell), Melo (Carmelo Anthony), Stat1 (Amar'e Stoutemire), Oak (Charles Oakley), Harp (Harp), Shump (Iman Shumpert) and D-Rose (Derrick Rose). An addendum to this consideration includes putting other generic words around a player’s name and calling it a nickname, so The Camby Man and Nate the Great are also out.
Next up: if you had a cool nickname but later used it for official branding purposes on merchandise for profit, it’s not eligible (even if the impetus was to provide reasonably priced items to those who otherwise would not be able to afford them). Sorry Starbury.
It should also go without saying that service time in New York matters, and in conjunction, how much of a player’s prime was spent here. While it’s not a requirement that the player was drafted by the Knicks or even that he spent a majority of his career here, he needs to be known at least primarily because of his exploits for this franchise. So Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, for example, is not under consideration. Similarly, even if a player was known mostly for his exploits here but later became synonymous with a nickname that caught on after his time in New York ended, that’s out too. Apologies to the Zen Master.
Another set of exclusions: nicknames that had either previously been or were subsequently adopted by someone else unless the subsequent adoption was very clearly held in less regard that the original. That means Michael “Sugar Ray” Richardson is out, first on account of Sugar Ray Robinson, and later Sugar Ray Leonard. Dean “The Dream” Meminger laid initial claim to his nickname, but was usurped Hakeem Olajuwon, while the same holds true for Jim “Bad News” Barnes, who ceded the “Bad News” label to the ABA’s Marvin Barnes for all of eternity2. Finally, I must sadly report that before Jerome Williams was ever referred to as the “Junkyard Dog,” former Knick Darrell Walker sported the same nickname more than a decade earlier.
While we’re on Matthew’s favorites, I’m afraid I have to rule out “The French Prince” as well. While there exists a large subset of Knicks fans for whom the very existence of “Frankie Smokes” is agida-inducing, it’s still out there, and is in fact the first listed entry on Basketball Reference. Much like having two starting quarterbacks is the same as having none at all, having multiple nicknames to the point that no single moniker is agreed upon as the “true” nickname means that all of them are out.
And finally, as Matthew suggests, there has to be consideration given to a player’s on-court value. A player didn’t need spend a ton of time here or even be a top flight guy on the roster as long as the memories associated with the player are positive. At the same time, this can’t simply be a sliding scale, where the better a player is, the more his nickname warrants consideration. The nickname has to be good in its own right. Using these dual consideration, Kenny “Sky” Walker doesn’t pass the smell test. Nor does Ron Burgandy, a.k.a., Ron Baker, or the Walking Bucket himself, Michael Beasley.
Before we get to three final exclusions and then my toughest cuts, a special shout out to Walt Bellamy and Howie Komives, better known as Bells & Butch during their time here in the late 60’s. It’s really hard to come up with a cool nickname for a duo (R.I.P., Quivers) so the fact that one existed for these guys is worth mentioning3.
OK, on to those last three exclusions, each of which require their own explanation:
Patrick Ewing, “The Hoya Destroya”
This is a badass fucking name, and an appropriate one at that. Ewing did indeed destroy opponents when he was at Georgetown, to the point that he entered the NBA with comparisons to the late, great Bill Russell as a force on the defensive end. And sure enough, he continued destroying people over the course of his 15 years in New York. Here’s the issue: the nickname is so intimately associated with Patrick’s college career that it feels disingenuous to consider it as one of the best Knick nicknames ever. So its out.
Earl “The Pearl” Monroe
Rather than try to explain myself why I can’t endorse “The Pearl” for this list, I’ll let Denzel Washington do the work for me:
This falls under the “two nicknames” corollary, and for as much as Pearl is legendary, it feels wrong to consider it over Jesus (and vice versa).
Walt “Clyde” Frazier
Here’s the thing about Clyde: not only is this the greatest nickname in the history of the Knicks, it’s arguably the greatest nickname in the history of basketball, if not all of sports. Everything about it is perfect, evinced by the fact that no one, ever, refers to Walt Frazier as “Walt Frazier.” It’s either Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Clyde Frazier, or simply Clyde. One rolls off the tongue easier than the last.
Its origin story only enhances its greatness. Borne of the fedoras he adopted from the Warren Beatty film Bonnie and Clyde, Frazier elevated them to a different level of cool as he combined on-court excellence with off-court stardom that simply could not exist in modern times. He was a living myth, making the city of New York his playground in every way imaginable.
For all these reasons, including “Clyde” in this discussion is like including New York in a discussion of the best states to get a slice of pizza or the original Dream Team in a discussion of the greatest teams ever assembled. It’s a cheat code.
But that’s only part of the reason I’m excluding “Clyde” from consideration here. Not only would it make for a very short newsletter, but on top of that, it has moved past nickname status altogether. Much like Magic Johnson, there is no Frazier without Clyde4. It is forever part of him, inseparable from the man it describes.
Linsanity - The moniker inspired by Jeremy Lin in February of 2012 doesn’t make the cut because it applies more to the phenomenon and not the player. Jeremy himself has spoken about how the very concept of Linsanity is something he had difficulty dealing with at times, and in his mind, the label very specifically applies to the events of that winter and early spring, not to himself.
LJ - Misses the cut for a few reasons, despite the fact that its the only nickname I know of that came with its own gesture, and what a gesture it was:
For one, this isn’t even Johnson’s most famous nickname, as Grandmama eventually transcended nickname status and became a full-on alter ego:
Second, for as awesome as “LJ” was and is, it’s just an abbreviation of his first and last name. While there is beauty in its simplicity, it gets docked creativity and originality points, so it’s out.
Crazy Eyes - I’m willing to look past the fact that Bobby Portis brought this nickname with him years after it’s original and rightful owner hung up his high-tops for the last time. But the reason I’m ultimately leaving Kurt Thomas’ nickname off the final list is because much like Thomas himself, it was never really front and center despite its subtle brilliance. If Breen or Clyde ever said it on a broadcast, I certainly don’t recall. Given how stiff the competition is, these knocks are enough to leave “Crazy Eyes” on the bench.
Dollar Bill - Future US Senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley got this nickname from his teammates because he was apparently quite the cheapskate, and they joked that he probably still had the first dollar he ever earned. That’s not exactly the stuff nickname dreams are made of, but there’s something very stately about the sound of it that so perfectly fits both the man and the player. Certainly deserved a mention.
Jazzy - I can’t find any information behind the meaning of Cazzie Russell’s nickname, so I assume it was given just because it sounded cool. And sometimes that’s enough. But not here.
The Captain - My toughest cut. I so badly wanted to include Willis Reed’s nickname on my final list, because everything you see and read about him makes this seem so fitting. He was a leader who needed no pomp and circumstance, which is why the simplicity of “The Captain” makes for a perfect description. But therein lies the issue: it’s as much a description as a nickname, because he was, indeed, the captain of those championship teams. Also, I couldn’t look past the fact that if you ask a typical New York sports fan about the first person who comes to mind when you say “The Captain,” it’s Derek Jeter, not Willis Reed.
The Top 5
5. Harry “The Horse” Gallatin
Gallatin played his last game in the NBA a quarter century before I was born, so there’s no personal connection behind this choice, which is why he’s only number five here.
This nickname just has so much going for it. For one, it’s a relic of a bygone era. Nobody would ever get dubbed “the horse” in 2022 (or 2002 or 1982, for that matter), not because its offensive or politically incorrect, but just because its plain, evoking images of a barn, not a ballplayer. By all accounts though, it fit Harry’s game perfectly. Here’s how the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville website described him when he passed away in 2015:
Despite being an undersized player, he began creating a name for himself throughout the Midwest using his tremendous physical strength, epitomized work ethic and passion for the game. These same attributes would later earn him the nickname “The Horse” among his peers.
It also rolls off the tongue - always a plus. Finally, Gallatin is one of the more underrated players in Knicks history, ranking 4th in win shares and known for leading New York to three straight Finals appearances and 27 playoff wins from 1949 to 1953. A worthy inclusion on the list by any metric.
4. “Novakaine” - Steve Novak
As far as nicknames that blend a name with an existing word, there is perhaps no better example in Knicks history (which is why it’s positively criminal that it’s not listed on Basketball Reference).
There’s just enough of a derivation here between the sound of the origin word and the name to make it unique. The numbing agent novocaine is pronounced /ˈnōvəˌkān/, with an “uh” sound joining the first and second syllables, whereas Novak is pronounced with more of an “ah” sounds, like in “yak.” That’s what ups the creativity level to put this in special company.
There’s also the connotation. A barrage of Steve Novak threes could and often did put an opposing team’s crowd into a premature slumber. For as much as he was something of a bit player who was only here for two seasons, it’s hard to find a Knicks fan with a negative memory of Novakaine during his time here, and they did an awful lot of winning (by recent standards, at least) during that time.
Bonus points for the championship belt celebration, even if it had nothing to do with the name itself:
3. “X-Man” - Xavier McDaniel
A real life superhero whose superpower was being a bad motherfucker.
Xavier McDaniel, for those who weren’t around for his lone season in Gotham, was part of an enforcement squad that also contained Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason. The first practice in which those three shared a court, described brilliantly in the opening pages of Chris Herring’s definitive text on the 90’s Knicks, “Blood in the Garden,” nearly resulted in an all-out brawl because McDaniel was hooking the legs of opposing players. Thankfully he got under the skin of opponents far more than his teammates from that point forward.
The X-Man (or simply “X-Man,” if that’s your preference) wasn’t in New York nearly long enough, which docks him points. Otherwise, this is about as perfect a nickname as you’ll find.
2. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton
Should probably be number one, for a few reasons.
For one, there aren’t many more important figures in basketball history, as Clifton become the first Black player to sign an NBA contract when he joined the Knicks in 1950. Once in New York, he immediately helped lead the team to three straight Finals appearances and finally made a long-overdue All-Star appearance during his last season with the Knicks in 1957.
As for the nickname, the simple story is that it came from his love of soda pop, but there’s a bit more too it than that. As James M. Manheim writes in an online biography of Clifton, it had far more to do with his background:
The nickname "Sweetwater" (or "Sweets") is often reported to have derived from his fondness for soft drinks, but the truth revealed more about the life of Southern black migrants in Chicago: since the family often couldn't afford soft drinks, Clifton would fill bottles with water and then pour sugar into them.
Before joining the Knicks, Clifton also played for the all-black New York Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters. He was in many ways the NBA’s first Black star, and the nickname is befitting of that legacy.
And yes, by all accounts, both the man and his game had a sweetness to it. Described by Bill Russell as “soft-spoken, but really tough,” he looked like someone who could have played in the game today:
All in all, “Sweetwater” probably deserves to be number one. But this is a personal list, and my number one is a personal choice.
1. “Mase” - Anthony Mason
Like the man himself, it is simple on its face, but complex upon deeper inspection. It is visceral, yet logical. It is everything a great nickname should be, and then some.
Anthony Mason was a walking contradiction. On one hand, he had enough skill to once average 16, 11 & 5 in a single season - something done by only 17 other men in NBA history, 11 of which have won MVP. On the other hand, he was an absolute bull - a take-no-shit, zero-nonsense kind of guy. That near brawl the Knicks almost got into during their first practice of the 1991 season? It was Mason who went after McDaniel for hooking guys in the session. He refused to back down, ever, and usually came out on top.
All of this made “Mase” the perfect nickname for a man who endeared himself to a generation of fans. There is a bluntness to the word itself, but also a beauty to it, much like the weapon that its alternate spelling describes. A mace is defined as any blunt weapon with a sturdy shaft and a heavy head used to deliver powerful blows, and boy, did Mase deliver some powerful blows. He was also as sturdy as they came, but thick-headed at times, often to his own detriment. In Blood in the Garden, Herring describes one night when Mason made a literal death threat to head coach Don Nelson for not playing him enough even though he was leading the league in minutes. He was that kind of dude.
And New Yorkers adored him for it. While this was certainly a man with demons, he had a smile that lit up a room. “Mase” embodies all of that. The long “A” sound into the “S” not only rolls off the tongue, but you need to form your mouth in the shape of smile to say it properly. There is no need to overthink how we got “Mase” from Mason, and yet it feels so incredibly thought out at the same time, as if no other nickname could have possibly fit. The lack of complication is yet another plus.
Is it the greatest Knick-name in history? There’s no way to objectively answer that question, try as I might have today. But it’s the best one in my book - one of a kind, just like the man it describes.
I know Amar'e came up with an acronym for this, “Standing Tall and Talented.” All due respect, I’m not sure this makes the case any better.
To understand why that nickname fit Marvin like a glove, please read “Loose Balls,” Terry Pluto’s incredible oral history of the ABA. Jim, meanwhile, was a great guy by all accounts.
It’s also fitting that they were traded together for Dave DeBusschere, who did not have a cool nickname but was the missing piece for the Knicks nonetheless.
To a much lesser degree, this is also why Sylvester “Sly” Williams doesn’t make the list.