A couple years after the historic 2003 NBA draft, I remember thinking it was odd that the three marquee talents from the draft all had common first names as their last names. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade. They had joined other more established stars with the same attribute, namely Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Ray Allen. That’s mildly interesting, I thought.
It may have been when Brandon Roy of the Portland Trailblazers was establishing himself as a top 10 player – 2009 or so, when he made the All-NBA Second Team – when the trend crossed my mind again. Brandon Roy was making waves. Dwight Howard was already the best center in the league. Chris Paul was probably the best point guard in the league. James, Bryant, Duncan, Anthony, Wade, and Allen were still at the top of their games. It was officially a strange trend among NBA stars.
And now it is 2014. Duncan came within a layup of leading his team to a shocking fifth championship just months ago. James and Wade led the way to the title over Duncan. Allen made the colossal shot that sealed it. Bryant is making $30 million per year and is knocking on the door of all-time scoring records. Paul is leading a dynamic Clippers team that contends for the title each year. Howard is anchoring an exciting Rockets team that expects to start contending this year. Anthony is the focal point of a relevant, although flawed, Knicks team. Only Roy is gone; the victim of degenerative and uncooperative knees.
In addition to all these stars, we now have Paul George, the crux of an excellent Pacers team and probably the third best player in the league. We have Kyrie Irving, the top overall draft pick from 2011 who is already a multiple all-star. We have Joakim Noah, who has slowly risen to acclaim and is most likely the best defensive center in the league. We also have Tyson Chandler, whose long road to success culminated last year in his first all-star appearance and the NBA Defensive Player of the Year trophy. Finally, 2011 MVP Derrick Rose can be thrown in (if we allow for a female first name). What is going on here?
Alongside city names, historical figures, extra Ys, and anything rhyming with Aidan, the use of traditional last names as first names is undeniably a trend in recent years. Names like Mason, Jackson, Landon, Cameron, Carson, Blake, Cole, Davis, and Hayden are hugely popular in the U.S. The striking thing about the list of stars mentioned above is that most of the last names have nothing to do with that trend. They have been incredibly common first names for generations, and are much more strongly associated with first names than surnames. Only Allen is one of the top 65 most common surnames in the U.S. I didn’t even include stars such as Tony Parker, Paul Pierce, Anthony Davis, and Vince Carter because I don’t deem the surnames to be “real” first names. But James? Noah? Anthony? George? Paul? Hell, we’ve already mentioned Paul George and Anthony Davis in the last two paragraphs. Many of the NBA names we’ve dealt with even have deep roots in Catholic and biblical history as first names (Paul, James, George, Anthony, Noah, etc.).
So, is this actually a weird phenomenon? The first step is to compare to NBA stars of generations past. There have been a few whose names fit the bill here, but not many. Michael Jordan, obviously, makes the list. As do Isiah Thomas, Bill Russell, Rick Barry, and Jerry Lucas. Those are five all-timers. But after them, things get sparse. Bill Bradley qualifies. Maurice Lucas was an all-star, as was Sleepy Floyd. But we’re already well past the level of the modern stars mentioned above. Truly, 11 or 12 of the top 15 or so players in the league probably have qualified for this list at various times from 2008-2014. Most if not all of them are future Hall of Famers. A team of James, George, Anthony, Wade, Bryant, Duncan, Paul, Howard, Noah, Irving, Chandler, Allen and Roy could probably rival the 1992 Dream Team, and yet they sound like a roll call of a classroom of Victorian era schoolboys.
The other step is to compare this set to comparably talented players in other sports from the same era. Spoiler alert: the results are once again mostly meager. Baseball gives us hardly anything to work with. Ryan Howard, Matt Harvey, and Bryce Harper, if you choose to count that as a first name, are the closest in recent years. If we count Cliff and Derrek Lee for baseball, we should count David Lee for basketball. Despite the fact that the MLB All-Star Game has 68 man rosters (!), all we can muster from 2001 to the present are names like Alex Gordon, Allen Craig, Joe Nathan, Jay Bruce, Sean Casey, and Johnny Damon, none of whom would ever be pinned as top 15 talents. We have to go all the way back to Frank Thomas to find a true legitimate entry.
Hockey is even more desolate. In recent years, we have Tim Thomas, Ray Whitney, Duncan Keith… and not much else. Going back decades, we have “Rocket” Richard and Doug Harvey from the 1940s, and maybe Patrick Roy if you want to get a little loosey goosey with the French.
Okay, perhaps you say that maybe the name trend is partially due, for whatever reason, to a higher percentage of black players in the NBA than the MLB. This wouldn’t explain why previous generations of NBA stars had so few qualifiers, but if race is a factor, we should expect the NFL to fare much better than baseball and hockey. It certainly scores higher, with early 2000s notables like running backs Shaun Alexander, Eddie George, and Edgerrin James, mid-2000s notables like Reggie Wayne, Joe Thomas, and Champ Bailey, and very recent stars such as Jamaal Charles, Josh Gordon, and Richard Sherman. Tom Brady spans the whole time frame. Jason Pierre-Paul gets double credit. But even taking into account the immense difference in size of the pool of players (there are 1,696 players on active rosters in the NFL, as opposed to only 450 in the NBA), it would be a stretch to say that more than a small handful of the top 15 or so talents at any given time in the NFL have been double first namers. Plus, two of those guys are white.
Obviously all of this is just coincidence. In this case, though, it is a coincidence that puts a stamp on a generation of talented players. Charles Barkley’s most used (but second best1) nickname was Sir Charles. Obviously, had he been born 20 years later, he would have been named Barkley Charles, but that’s beside the point. Only players of the top caliber, such as our NBA list, would ever be given a knighthood-worthy “Sir” nickname like Barkley was. His “sir name” had to be his first name because his surname is actually a last name. However, the modern NBA is full of more versatile sir name surnames. Let’s accept this generational anomaly and give due respect to the bearers of the modern sir names as a testament to their athleticism, leadership, and success. It’s the era of the sir names in the NBA. Maybe it’s the source of their powers. After all, that which we call a Derrick Rose by any other name might not shoot as sweet.
- The best, of course, was the Round Mound of Rebound.