Our favorite sports name changes

31

December

The first Two Cents column in the newly-named Tampa Bay Times is all about name changes. We look back at just some of our favorite name changes in sports.

Muhammad Ali
Born Cassius Clay, the heavyweight boxer became a member of the Nation of Islam in 1964 and his name officially became Muhammad Ali. At the time, many Americans, including sports broadcasters and writers, refused to accept his name change. One who did, however, was Howard Cosell. Ali then went on to become one of the most famous athletes and people of all-time.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Like Ali, Abdul-Jabbar’s name change was born from religious and political reasons. Born Lew Alcindor, the basketball superstar boycotted the 1968 Olympics because of the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the United States. On May 1, 1971 — the day after his Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship — he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which roughly translated means “noble servant of God.’’

World B. Free
Our favorite athlete’s name change ever. Born Lloyd Free, he was a better-than-you-remember NBA player who played for five teams (including the 76ers twice) from 1975 to 1988. He averaged more than 20 points a game, finished second in the league in scoring twice and played in an All-Star Game. His shot was so dangerous from anywhere on the court that a friend back on the Brooklyn playgrounds gave him the nickname “World.’’ In 1981, Free dropped his first name in favor of “World’’ added a “B’’ as a middle initial and the result was one of the coolest names ever.

Chad Ocho Cinco
Born Chad Johnson, this NFL wide receiver decided to honor Hispanic Heritage Month in October of 2006 by wearing the name “Ocho Cinco’’ on his back for a Monday Night Football game. Eventually, the patch was taken off to reveal his real name underneath, but the NFL still fined him. So, Johnson legally changed his name to Ocho Cinco in August of 2008. It was supposed to represent his uniform number, 85, but technically “Ocho Cinco’’ means 8-5, while “ochenta y cinco’’ means 85. Who cares? It’s awesome.

Ahmad Rashad
Many athletes have changed their names because of religious reasons, especially because of a conversion to Islam. Our favorite name, however, is that of Ahmad Rashad. Formerly named Bobby Moore, Rashad changed his name in 1972, the year he broke into the NFL. He had a solid career as a wide receiver, but is better known for his work as a broadcaster, particularly in the 1980s with NBC, and for his on-air marriage proposal to Cosby show actor Phylicia Ayers-Allen.

Abdul-Karim al-Jabbar
Here’s someone who changed his name twice. Born Sharmon Shah, he went on to star as a running back for UCLA in the early 1990s. While there, he changed his name to Karim Abdul-Jabbar after his conversion to Islam. But NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar felt the other Abdul-Jabbar might have been profiting from the very similar name, especially because both were athletes and both went to UCLA. So, the younger Abdul-Jabbar changed his name again, this time to Abdul-Karim al-Jabbar. He spent five years in the NFL with the Dolphins, Browns and Colts and had decent success with more than 3,400 yards rushing and 33 touchdowns.

Domanick Williams
Williams spent three years as a running back with the Texans and still is the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. He posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years with 22 touchdowns, but a knee injury ultimately derailed his career. He was born Domanick Davis. He once explained that “Davis’’ was his brother’s father’s name and somehow he ended up with that name. But he said he was a  “Williams” because that’s what his mother’s maiden name was. In the end, he did it in honor of his mother.

Bison Dele
Born Brian Williams, he was a solid NBA player who spent nine seasons in the NBA with five teams, averaging 11 points and six rebounds a game at center. He changed his name to Bison Dele — Bison in honor of buffalo herds and Dele, which is an African name. But his life ended bizarrely. For starters, he walked away at age 30 with five years and $36 million left on a contract. He then disappeared at sea in 2002 and is presumed dead. Authorities believe he, along with his girlfriend and a boat captain, were murdered and thrown overboard by Dele’s brother, who later committed suicide.

Marvelous Marvin Hagler
One of the greatest boxers of all-time, this middleweight champ became annoyed when broadcasters didn’t refer to him by his nickname of “Marvelous’’ as in “Marvelous Marvin Hagler.’’ So he showed them: In 1982 he legally changed his name to Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

Stylez G. White
We’ve heard of people naming their kids after famous characters in fiction, like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. But this has to be the all-timer: changing your name to a character in the movie Teen Wolf? That was the nickname of Michael J. Fox’s character's friend in the 1985 comedy and that was what Greg White, the former Bucs defensive end, changed his name to in Hillsborough County Circuit Court in late 2008. Man, that’s dope. Way to go, Stylez!

Metta World Peace
Back when he was crazy, this NBA star was known by his birth name Ron Artest. Today, he’s still crazy, but it’s a pretty cool new name.

Washington Wizards
Many teams over the years have changed names because they moved from one city to another, such as the Colts, Dodgers, Giants, Braves, A’s, Jazz and Rams. Some franchises not only changed their city names, but their nicknames as well, such as Washington Senators/Texas Rangers, Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche, Seattle Sonics/Oklahoma City Thunder. But not many franchises stay in the same city and change their name. The most famous case, arguably, is the Washington Wizards, which used to be the Washington Bullets. Uncomfortable with a name that implied violence, owner Abe Polin, after getting suggestions from fans, changed to name to Wizards in May of 1997.

Other famous team name changes
With a lack of players available because of World War II, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles combined teams in 1943 and was known as the Steagles. The Cincinnati Red Stockings became the Reds in 1890. Because of the Communism paranoia during the McCarthy Era, the Cincinnati Reds changed their name to the Redlegs for a spell in the 1950s. More recently, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, originally named after the Walt Disney movie, simplified their name to the Anaheim Ducks in 2006.

And finally
Our own baseball team dropped the Devil (and losing ways) from their name and became, simply, the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. As the Devil Rays, the team went 645-972 with no winning seasons in 10 years. Since the name change, the Rays have gone 368-280 with four winning seasons, three postseason berths and one World Series appearance in four seasons.
-- Tom Jones

[Last modified: Saturday, December 31, 2011 8:53pm]

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