Ten Best Basketball Player Nicknames

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Basketball player nicknames are a big part of hoops history. Wilt Chamberlain was "Wilt the Stilt," Michael Jordan "Air Jordan," Oscar Robertson "The Big O," Pete Maravich "Pistol Pete," Julius Erving "Dr. J.," John Havlicek "Hondo," Bob Cousy "The Houdin

Basketball player nicknames are an important part of the game’s history. Here are ten colorful basketball monikers that are sure to excite fans. And yes, all ten picks are members of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts…

Wilt Chamberlain (1936-1999/“Wilt the Stilt, “The Big Dipper,” “Goliath”

Standing 7’1” tall, Wilt Chamberlain was one of the most dominant players in hoops history. Following a spectacular prep career at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, Chamblerlain went on to play ball for the University of Kansas. He then ascended to the National Basketball Association, plying his talents for the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. A four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, Chamberlain’s final professional career stats are indeed impressive: 31,419 points for a 30.1 per game average and 23,924 rebounds. Wilt Chamberlain was known by a variety of nicknames, including “Wilt the Stilt,” “The Big Dipper,” “Goliath” and “The Chairman of the Boards.”

Autographed photo: "Wilt the Stilt" Chamberlain

Michael Jordan (1963-)/“Air Jordan,” “His Airness”

Turned down for a spot on the Laney High School (Wilmington, North Carolina) varsity basketball team his sophomore year, Michael Jordan more than made up for the rejection. He went on to become a prep star at Laney and a first team All-American for Dean Smith’s University of North Carolina Tar Heels. The #3 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, Jordan spent the majority of his career with the Chicago Bulls, where he was a five-time league MVP and collected six NBA championship titles. Jordan ended his career in 2003 with the Washington Wizards, amassing 32,292 points for a 30.1 per game average and 5,633 assists. Jordan was called “Air Jordan” or “His Airness,” monikers which conjured up images of his almost effortless feats on the basketball court.

1986-87 Fleer basketball card: Michael Jordan "Air Jordan"

Oscar Robertson (1938-)/“The Big O,” “O-Train”

Recognized as one of the most versatile players in NBA history, Oscar Robertson played his college ball at the University of Cincinnati where he won the national scoring title for three consecutive years. The #1 pick in the 1960 NBA Draft, Robertson went on to play for the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks. When his NBA career ended in 1974, Robertson had amassed 26,710 points for a 25.7 per game average and 9,887 assists. Robertson was respectfully called “The Big O” or “O-Train.”

Autographed 1950s photo: Oscar Robertson "The Big O," second from right, as a player for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats

Pete Maravich (1947-1988)/“Pistol Pete”

One of the most exciting players in basketball history, Pete Maravich played his college ball for the Louisiana State Tigers, coached by his father Press Maravich. While playing for the LSU varsity, the 6’5” Maravich averaged 44.2 points per game and led the NCAA in scoring for three straight years. Selected as the #3 overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft, Maravich played 10 seasons of pro ball for the Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans/Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics. Maravich’s famous nickname of “Pistol Pete” was acquired in high school, where it was said he shot the ball from his side like he was brandishing a pistol.

1970-71 Topps basketball card: "Pistol Pete" Maravich

Julius Erving (1950-)/“Dr. J”

One of the early stars of the American Basketball Association, Julius Erving played his collegiate ball at the University of Massachusetts. Erving began his pro career with the ABA’s Virginia Squires in 1971, later moving on to the New York Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. The 6’ 7” Erving was known for his spectacular slam dunks, which often began at the free throw line as he glided towards the basket. During his ABA/NBA career, Erving posted 30,026 points for a 24.2 per game average and 10,525 rebounds. It was at Roosevelt (New York) High School where a friend branded Erving with his “Dr. J” moniker.

Autographed photo: Julius Erving "Dr. J"

John Havlicek (1940-)/“Hondo”

John Havlicek played his collegiate ball at Ohio State where he was a member of the Buckeyes’ 1960 NCAA championship team. The #7 overall pick in the 1962 NBA Draft, Havlicek played his entire 1962-78 pro career with the Boston Celtics, collecting eight NBA championship rings. Called the “guts of the team” by Celtics head coach Red Auerbach, the 6’5” Havlicek scored 26,395 points and handed out 6,114 assists during his days in Boston. Havlicek was affectionately known as “Hondo,” a moniker taken from the 1953 John Wayne film of the same name in which the Duke played Hondo Lane.

1969-70 Topps basketball card: John "Hondo" Havlicek

Bob Cousy (1928-)/“The Houdini of the Hardwood,” “The Cooz,” “Mr. Basketball”

One of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Bob Cousy played his collegiate ball at Holy Cross. The #3 overall pick in the 1950 NBA Draft, Cousy went on to star for the Boston Celtics from 1950-63, ending his playing days as a player/coach with the Cincinnati Royals in 1970. During his pro career Bob Cousy scored 16,960 points and dished out 6,955 assists. A six-time NBA champion with the Celtics, the 6’ 1” Cousy was called “The Houdini of the Hardwood,” “The Cooz” and “Mr. Basketball.”

1957-58 Topps basketball card: Bob Cousy "The Houdini of the Hardwood"

George Gervin (1952-)/“The Iceman”

George Gervin played his collegiate ball at Long Beach State and Eastern Michigan. His first chance at pro ball came with the Virginia Squires of the ABA in 1973-74. Gervin then became a star for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, who later retired his #44 jersey. The 6’7” Gervin plied his on-court talents as a shooting guard, scoring 26,595 points for a 25.1 per game average during his ABA/NBA career. Gervin was called “The Iceman” in tribute to his calm, cool performance on the court.

Promotional poster: George Gervin "The Iceman"

Earvin Johnson (1959-)/“Magic,” “The Magic Man”

One of the flashiest players in NBA history, Earvin Johnson played his collegiate ball at Michigan State, where he led the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA championship over Larry Bird’s Indiana State. The #1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, Johnson played his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers where he collected three NBA Most Valuable Player titles and five NBA championship rings. The 6’9” Johnson scored 17,707 points and handed out 10,141 assists during his pro career. Johnson had acquired his famous nickname of “Magic” while a sophomore at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, courtesy of Lansing State Journal sportswriter Fred Stabley Jr., who had witnessed the 15-year-old score 36 points, haul in 18 rebounds and dish out 16 assists in one memorable game.

Autographed photo: Earvin "Magic" Johnson

Calvin Murphy (1948-)/“The Pocket Rocket”

A prep star at Norwalk (Connecticut) High School, the 5’9” Calvin Murphy played his college hoops for Niagara University, where he was a three-time All-American. The #18 overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft, Murphy played his entire 1970-83 professional career with the Houston Rockets, who later retired his #23 jersey. A crack free throw shooter with a career 89.2% average, Murphy scored 17,949 points and handed out 4,402 assists as a Rocket. Although small in stature, Murphy proved that there was a place for “little men” in the NBA, earning the moniker “The Pocket Rocket.”

Publicity photo: Calvin Murphy "The Pocket Rocket" as a player for Niagara University

Fifteen More Popular Basketball Player Nicknames

  • Larry Bird (1956-)/“Larry the Legend”
  • Karl Malone (1963-)/”The Mailman”
  • Jerry West (1938-)/“Mr. Clutch”
  • Shawn Kemp (1969-)/“The Rain Man”
  • LeBron James (1984-)/“King James,” “The L-Train”
  • Dennis Rodman (1961-)/“The Worm”
  • Charles Barkley (1963-)/“Sir Charles,” “The Round Mound of Rebound”
  • Nate Thurmond (1941-)/“Nate the Great”
  • Cliff Hagan (1931-)/“Li’l Abner”
  • Billy Cunningham (1943-)/”The Kangaroo Kid”
  • Kobe Bryant (1978-)/“Black Mamba”
  • Nate Archibald (1948-)/“Tiny”
  • Earl Monroe (1944-)/“Earl the Pearl,” “Black Magic,” “Black Jesus”
  • Walt Frazier (1945-)/“Clyde”
  • Elvin Hayes (1945-)/“The Big E”

1961 Fleer basketball card: Jerry West "Mr. Clutch"

Images Credit

  • All images courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas
  • Top image: 1973-74 Atlanta Hawks team-issued photo: "Pistol Pete" Maravich


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