The Rising NBA Star (Acronymous numerous)

Just thinking about the evolution of basketball players' nicknames:

Remember when there were some really creative nicknames for basketball stars? I am thinking of the days of The Iceman (George Gervin), Chocolate Thunder (Darryl Dawkins) and Pistol (Pete Maravich).

In the mass media age of today, nicknames are far more about incrementally-higher degrees of information processing, as one attempts to encapsulate as much information as possible into ever-tinier chunks — a sort of techno-creativity rather than the artistic creativity mentioned above.

I think it started a few decades ago with Michael Jordan and the personal computer revolution. The latter, which blazed the path for the interconnected world of communications that we live in today, was fostered by an explosion of hardware, software, and system protocols that kept everything together. The techies needed labels for these exploding shards, and so we entered The Age of Acronyms.

Of course, Jordan provided the content matter for this new age of communications. Michael Jordan = MJ.

Others followed: LJ (Larry Johnson), VC (Vince Carter), and AI (Allen Iverson) to name a few. Even LT (Lawrence Taylor) made an acronym for himself in football.

Then there came the trend of conjoining the first and last names of the rising star in question. Think T-Mac (Tracy McGrady), C-Webb (Chris Webber), J-Kidd (Jason Kidd), or MoPete (Morris Peterson). Lots more information, but still only two syllables (or bits, as it were). Thus, a form of data compression begins to emerge.

Now we have two new nicknames in the league, both belonging to upcoming stars in the NBA: AK-47 and CB4.

The AK-47 is a Soviet-made military assault rifle. Andrei Kirilenko is a Russian-born forward for the Utah Jazz, a gunner who currently leads the team in PPG. He also leads the team in STL, BLK, FG% and FT% — talk about a machine. He also wears jersey number 47. Hey, a machine-like gunner that wears number 47? Hmmmmm …

Then there is Chris Bosh, the rookie forward for the Toronto Raptors. He wears jersey number 4, so the wags are calling him CB4, after the movie of the same name that stars comedian Chris Rock as an aspiring gangsta rapper. Now the link here is probably less tangible, but certainly the attempt to associate a new "brand" with an earlier brand — through the underground appeal of the movie, the general appeal of gangsta rap with young males, and the star power of Chris Rock — seems like an ingenious marketing strategy.

In both cases we see an even higher degree of information chunking, with the acronym of the athlete's initials conjoining with his jersey number to produce a sort of neologism that corresponds or samples from an already existing meme — what Jenkins would refer to as textual poaching.

("Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern-recognition" — McLuhan.)

It is noteworthy that both of these nicknames, as well as many of the earlier examples, are bestowed upon the athletes by the media establishment. Create an engaging, information-dense meme for the athlete to swirl around the matrix, and it will become more easily remembered by John Q. Sixpack, and therefore more valuable in a marketing sense. Never mind how the athlete himself feels about the nickname:

I like AK-47, but everyone makes it like a Russian gun. I'm trying to be like a gun, but not in the war. I'm trying to be gun like maybe help against war. Because I don't like war. I don't like terrorism, I don't like stuff like that. I like peace. I like to save lives. Maybe my nickname help against war. It connects with war, but it's against war.

– Kirilenko, on what he thinks of his nickname, "AK-47"
from NBA All-Star 2003 on

Now contrast these with some of the wonderfully vivid nicknames of the ballers on today's AND1 Streetball Tour: Skip To My Lou, Hot Sauce, High Octane, and Half Man Half Amazing. In a return to the creativity of days past, these athletes have become brands in their own right while retaining more control over their choice of nickname, which is in effect their stage identity (or have they?).

Regardless, it is very interesting to note the difference between the nicknames of the corporatized, disciplined, information-machine of the NBA and those of the rules-breaking, freelancing artistry of the streetball world, and is perhaps something to keep an eye on.


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