It’s no secret that American sports nicknames are not as good as they used to be. Seemingly half the time, present-day nicknames are just the player’s initials and a number (CP3, RG3, TB12, etc.). This is what happens when the brevity of hashtags and social media combines with wealthy player-entrepreneurs who want to create their own global “brand” with the broadest possible audience and a compliant media and fanbase that largely accepts whatever anodyne nickname the player’s media team comes up with.
Luckily, we have China’s infinitely clever, endlessly snarky basketball fans to provide a fresh injection of hilarious and at times brutally savage nicknames for our sports heroes.
At their best, Chinese nicknames always seem to combine both affection and shade, producing monikers that both fans and haters can get behind. Thus Charles Barkley is called a fat pig, but he’s a flying fat pig (飞猪)—high praise, since the character for “flying” normally is reserved for players who take their game above the rim. It’s also a pun, since the character for “flying” sounds similar to the Chinese word for “fat.” Similarly, Joel Embiid is “the Great” (大帝), but there’s a hint of sarcasm that maybe his greatness is self-appointed and not yet earned. Manu Ginobili is “The Demon Blade” (妖刀), which sounds (and is) awesome, but of course in Chinese martial arts fiction, blades possessed by demons, while powerful and devastating to opponents, often have the propensity turn back against their owners at crucial moments.
Chinese nicknames also are helped out by the visual nature of the Chinese language, such that a nickname of just two or three characters can contain multiple layers of verbal and visual puns, not to mention cultural and historical references.
So without further ado, here are some of the best nicknames for the players remaining in the 2018 NBA playoffs, with detailed explanations of why Chinese people find these names so funny.
LeBron James probably is best known as 詹皇 (Zhan Huang), which is an attempt to directly translate his English nickname “King James.” The phonetic spelling of “James” in Chinese is 詹姆士 (Zhan Mu Shi), and 皇 (Huang) means “emperor” so this nickname means “Emperor James.”
Another common nickname for James is “Old Beijing” (老北京, Lao Bei Jing), since the initial sounds of these characters spell “LBJ.”
Of course James also has his haters in China, and their nicknames are less flattering. When James first came into the league, he was called “The Little Emperor” (小皇帝) on account of his youth. Most people don’t call him that any more, but “Little Emperor” is also a common slang term for a spoiled only child raised under China’s “One Child Policy” so haters still roll this term out from time to time.
Others have focused on LeBron’s propensity to travel without getting called for it, dubbing him “Six-Step Bron” (六步郎), using three characters that also sound like “LeBron,” as well as “King of the Crabs” (蟹皇), coined after LeBron tried to claim that his traveling was a legal “crab dribble.”
Some LeBron haters feel that LeBron not only gets away with traveling, but also too often is awarded free throws for minimal touching, so they’ve nicknamed him “Zhan Tianyou” (詹天佑) which is the name of a famous Chinese railroad engineer in the 1800s, but also means “Heaven Protects James.” “Heaven,” in this case, alludes to the NBA commissioner.
J.R. Smith is called “The Psychotic Blade” (神经刀) because he is so unpredictable and inconsistent. Will he hurt you? Will he hurt himself? Who knows? This is a reference to the title of a 1969 Hong Kong film about a mentally unstable martial artist, and the term has been applied to other athletes who seem to alternate between brilliant and terrible, including footballers Mario Balotelli and Fernando Torres, and table tennis player Ai Fukuhara.
Kevin Love is simply the “Love God” (爱神), but when Chinese fans feel he is playing too “soft,” they are quick to change this to “Love Goddess” (爱女神) by inserting the character for “female.”
Steph Curry probably has more nicknames than any current NBA player except for LeBron. Many of these nicknames play on his relatively small size for a basketball player, including “The Elementary School Student” (小学生) and 萌神, which literally translates as “Sprout God,” but might more naturally be translated as “Adorable God,” since the Chinese character for “sprout” is a reference to the Japanese concept of “Moe” (萌え), describing feelings of affection and protectiveness for small, cute things.
But Curry’s most interesting Chinese nickname is “Steph Skyfucker” (库昊), which derives from an elaborate series of interlocking visual and verbal puns. It turns out that Chinese also has the phrase “the sky’s the limit” (天空是极限), just like in English. Over time “breaking through the sky” (捅破天) became a way to describe someone who vastly exceeded all expectations. However, in other contexts, the same characters for “breaking through” can be a vulgar slang term for “fuck.” Since Curry defied all expectations to become a superstar, people started saying he had broken through the sky—or fucked it.
Meanwhile, one of the phonetic names for Curry is 库里 (ku li). In this usage, these characters were not intended to represent any specific meaning, just sounds. However some Chinese netizens with dirty minds noticed that the second character, 里, seemed to depict the character for the earth (土), extending upward to sexually penetrate the character for the sun (日). It turns out that the character for sun is also a slang term meaning “to fuck.” So these characters could also be translated as “Curry fucks the sun.” This made people think of the common phrase about Curry “fucking the sky,” so they replaced the character 里 with the character 昊, consisting of “sun/fucks” (日) and “sky” (天). The phrase now translated as “Curry fucks the sky,” hence “Steph Skyfucker.”
Kevin Durant was called “Schoolbag Du” (书包杜) when he was younger, because of his tendency to wear a backpack to press conferences (Du is short for “Durant”). Later in his career, and especially after he joined the Warriors, he became known as the “God of Death” (死神). This nicknamed derived from a famous image of Durant as the Grim Reaper and speaks to his relentless scoring and determination to end games with game winning shots that the Chinese also call “daggers” and which they refer to as “killing” the game.
Klay Thompson is called “The Buddha” (佛祖) because Chinese people think his short, curly hair makes him look just like a statue of the Buddha. Another nickname for Klay is the “Soup God” (汤神), because the first character of “Thompson” happens to be the character for “soup,” and he is considered a basketball god.
Andre Iguodala was originally called “AI Jr.” (小AI) because when he came into the league he was another player with the initials “A.I.” playing on the Sixers alongside Allen Iverson. But nowadays he is called the “Coffin Mamba” (棺曼巴), a parody of Kobe Bryant’s “Black Mamba” nickname which could also be translated here as “Undead Mamba” or “Vampire Mamba.” Chinese fans feel he plays like an old man in the regular season, but then suddenly comes back to life in the playoffs. This annual transformation is known as “opening the coffin lid” (打开棺盖).
Draymond Green is called “Chasing Dreams” (追梦), because “chasing dreams” (Zhui Meng) sounds a lot like “Draymond.” It can also allude to Green’s unlikely path to stardom after being selected with the 35th pick in the second round of the draft.
JaVale McGee is the “Gaffe God” (囧神). The first character (囧) means a kind of window, but has recently been used in Chinese internet culture as an emoji representing an embarrassed and apologetic face.
Zaza Pachulia is 渣渣 (pronounced Zha Zha), which sounds like his first name but also means something like “dregs of the earth,” due to his perceived dirty play.
James Harden is most often called “Big Beard” (大胡子), but another common nickname is “Godden” (神登), combining the character for “god” and the last character of “Harden.” This name is funnier than it seems because those characters sound the same as the Chinese word for “magic lamp” (神灯), leading to many puns about lamps and genies.
Harden has also been awarded various “Mamba” titles, that show grudging respect for the “Kobe-esque” greatness of his game, but also point out his foibles. He is often called “Fat Mamba” (肥曼巴) because people see him as a heavier, slower version of Kobe, as well as “Free Throw Mamba” (罚曼巴) which can be read as both praise for his extraordinary ability to get to the free throw line as well as criticism of his heavy reliance on free throws to keep his scoring average high.
Most damningly, he has also been dubbed “Porcelain Mamba” for his efforts to draw fouls despite being hardly touched. In Chinese, “bumping porcelain” (碰瓷) is a euphemism for faking traffic accidents in order to fraudulently collect compensation. The expression dates to the Qing Dynasty, when scam artists would carry a fake porcelain vase and purposely bump into a rickshaw and drop the vase, causing it to shatter. They would then claim the shattered vase was a valuable antique and demand compensation. The implication here is that Harden is a master scam artist who draws fouls he doesn’t deserve.
The concept of “bumping porcelain” helps explain why NBA players who flop or otherwise try to draw fouls they don’t deserve are called “Sons of Jingdezhen” (景德镇之子), as Jingdezhen is a town in China famous as a center of porcelain production. Since Harden is the acknowledged master of this art, he has been dubbed the “Mayor of Jingdezhen” (景德镇镇长), which we might translate more freely as the “Mayor of Floptown.”
Chris Paul, meanwhile, is usually called “Cannon” (炮, Pao), because it sounds like “Paul,” so after he joined forces with Harden on Rockets, Harden and Paul were collectively called “Light Bulb” (灯炮), which is the Chinese word you get when you combine “lamp” (灯) and “cannon” (炮).
Clint Capela is called the “Pancake Emperor” (饼皇) because in Chinese slamming home alley-oop lob passes is called “eating pancakes” (吃饼). In this context, Chris Paul and James Harden, as the lob passers, are known as the “Pancake Makers” (做饼人).
Eric Gordon is called “Round Face Gordon” (圆脸登) because his face is seemingly a perfect circle. A similar nickname is “Pi Mamba” (π曼巴), suggesting his face is such a perfect circle it can be used to accurately calculate the value of pi.
Ryan Anderson is the “Standing Around Mamba” (站曼巴), because people feel he just stands around behind the three-point line, waiting for a catch-and-shoot pass.
Kyrie Irving is known as “Uncle Drew” (德鲁大叔), after his character in the popular series of Pepsi commercials, and “Potassium Iodide” (碘化钾), since both he and this chemical compound are abbreviated “KI.” Kyrie has also been nicknamed the “Flat Mamba” (平曼巴) because of his stated belief that the earth is flat.
Terry Rozier is called “Biological Son” (亲儿子) or “The Crown Prince” (太子) because Celtics GM Danny Ainge is so reluctant to trade him that he must be Ainge’s biological son or the heir to his kingdom. This is even funnier than it sounds because these same nicknames had been used previously for Austin Rivers, who of course is Doc Rivers’ actual biological son. So in other words people are saying that Rozier is Danny Ainge’s Austin Rivers.
Marcus Smart is nicknamed “Sma-Brick” (司马钢) because of his low shooting percentage. The first two characters are the extremely common Chinese surname “Sima,” which sounds like the beginning of “Smart,” and the third character is “iron,” which is a Chinese slang term for a badly missed shot (a “brick”).
Jayson Tatum is called “Rex Rabbit” (獭兔, Ta Tu, a type of rabbit) because it sounds like “Tatum,” but many people exchange the first character (獭, meaning “otter”) for an extremely similar character that means “lazy” (懒), and instead just call Tatum the “Lazy Rabbit” (懒兔).
Jaylen Brown is nicknamed 杰伦 (Jie Lun) because it sounds like “Jaylen” and also because it is the Chinese given name of the massively popular Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou (周杰伦).
Al Horford is “The Cook” (伙夫, Huo Fu) because it sounds like “Horford.”
Nick Kapur is Assistant Professor of East Asian History at Rutgers University.