The recent retirement announcement of PBA veteran Ranidel De Ocampo brought back memories of the outrageously funny TNT TV commercial he did with Larry Fonacier and Jayson Castro.
De Ocampo complained to his two teammates back then that he was disappointed with his familiar moniker, RDO. They were just his initials and was incomparable to Fonacier's "Baby-Faced Assassin" or Castro's "The Blur."
Fonacier then goes on to gather the opinion of TNT top honcho Manny Pangilinan on the matter. Pangilinan asks RDO what's wrong with his moniker if he himself goes by "MVP." De Ocampo initially says that he'll stick with his sobriquet but ends the commercial with still another attempt to gain a new moniker. His teammates give up especially when the name "Hodor" comes up and makes no real connection to the definitive stretch four.
Sports heroes usually do not enter their legendary realms bringing along their own self-created monikers. Julius Erving though supposedly got his "Dr. J" name from his playground exploits when by-standers would declare that the "doctor was in the house." Erving carried the name throughout his ABA and NBA career as he surgically cut through defensive lines.
No one really creates one for him or herself unless you're Muhammad Ali. Even at a young age and having just won the Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal in Rome, Ali already knew he would be "The Greatest." He just had to back it up which he did.
It's really the sports followers - the fans and the media - that bestow the name.
Some names are legendary as a cursory look at the online pages will reveal. Baseball, boxing, basketball, American football, football seem to be the sports that produce the most nicknames. The popularity of these sports has no doubt been responsible with penning or calling some of the best names.
Sports monikers add to the joy and thrill of fan following. Attempts to specifically pinpoint the origins of giving interesting and intriguing nicknames to sports heroes fail to extract exact origins. However, it's safe to assume that the earliest sports promoters and chroniclers wanted to not just sell tickets based on the teams that were playing but also on the heroes that were set to wage sports battles.
If the nicknames made a connection with sports fans, then the writing or broadcast calling of the exploits of the heroes became easier, more flowery at times and legendary on other occasions.
The Philippine experience
Philippine basketball is not without its share of fascinating and intriguing nicknames through the ages. Jacinto Ciria Cruz one of the early Filipino hoop heroes was "Jumping Jack." The hard-nosed coach of the 1954 bronze medal Philippine team of the World Championships was Herminio "Herr" Silva. Franciso Rabat was the "Rajah of Rebounds" because of his board work. Lauro Mumar was "The Fox" because of his cunning moves.
The early chroniclers on the sports pages clearly wanted to compete and vie for attention of readers who scanned the front pages. The great sports editors and writers back then like Teddy Benigno and Tony Siddayao made game stories come alive with excellent prose and colorful descriptions.
In time, radio would follow and because the medium was "the theater of the mind," there was a need to come up with creative descriptions for the audience that could not yet see their heroes.
I am old enough to have heard the great Willie Hernandez do play-by-play on radio and TV. It's unfortunate that there seems to be no recording of his work unless an old vinyl disc or cassette pops up from somewhere. His rapid-fire delivery and accounts of old Yco and Ysmael battles and Philippine team exploits would still be a thrill to listen to today.
Hernandez has been acknowledged to have named Robert Jaworski "The Big J" and the legendary Carlos Loyzaga as "The Big Difference."
Hernandez's heirs to the sports mike who began in radio then segued naturally to TV had their own share of nicknames for players. Cool and suave Dick Ildefonso dubbed Atoy Co "The Fortune Cookie," Pinggoy Pengson called Philip Cezar "The Scholar" and Joe Cantada named Benjie Paras "The Tower of Power" and Hector Calma "The Director."
How is a moniker created?
Player nicknames can come about both intentionally and accidentally.
When does "intentionally" happen? You can come to the broadcast or coverage with a name already in mind, something you were probably thinking about long before the game. Other people like colleagues can help you produce the nickname.
In the Vintage days, columnist and analyst Quinito Henson would often give us phrases that we could use in the coverage. As initially a consultant back then in a pre-Internet era, Quinito would devour every sports book, magazine or telecast to help improve our own sports vocabulary.
From his lists, I remember highlighting the name "Velvet Touch" to describe a smooth shooter. When youthful Richie Ticzon started hitting those threes, he seemed perfect for The Velvet touch and it stuck with him.
Recently, fellow broadcaster and game story writer Chuck Araneta wrote in our pre-game notes the name "Cyclone" for Jio Jalalon. It was as if it was fated on that particular day when Jalalon was whirling around any defense opponents could put up. I inserted "Jalalon is like a cyclone" in the broadcast and the tag has continued to describe this energetic player.
The late Butch Maniego and I would also team up on radio and television to coin player monikers. Our Thursday Twins partnership produced "The Triggerman" for Allan Caidic and "The Aerial Voyager" for Vergel Meneses. We had discussed these names often before going on the air and then one day, we decided to go with them.
The "accidentally" happens when action on the court creates the names. When I called one of the games of Dindo Pumaren back in the day, the fiery guard was zipping through defensive traps and hitting lay-ups and threes. I accidentally said, "Pumaren is a bullet on the court" and somehow the name stuck.
A great one that just happened is "Extra Rice" for Beau Belga as created by Mico Halili. The name captures who Belga is as a competitor and a fun-loving person off the court.
One moniker that has become part of the PBA lexicon but whose origin is unclear is "The Kraken" of six-time MVP June Mar Fajardo. No one knows exactly who first came up with this nickname and when it started being used, but from all indications Fajardo already had it as early as his Cesafi days in Cebu. In any case, it stuck and is now one of the most popular in league history.
Why aren't there more nicknames?
On Twitter and other social platforms, PBA fans ask me why there aren't more nicknames among current players. For instance, there are some very excellent players who still don't have a nickname or moniker that sticks like Sean Anthony who is now receiving long overdue kudos for his hardcourt exploits.
The reason perhaps is timing and not really a lack of imagination from both the fans and media. The nickname has to fit, sound right and feel almost perfect. Some of the great NBA players don't even have a sobriquet that really sticks: Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Willis Reed and among others. There have been attempts no doubt to honor these greats with a sobriquet but the absence of an applicable or appropriate one in no way diminishes their greatness.
There are many names that are being attached to some players but don't feel clearly connected to the fans or the games they bring to the hardcourt. The rule of thumb is to not force the name. If it comes, it comes and if it doesn't, the player remains outstanding if he is truly great.
A nickname, moniker or sobriquet can nevertheless define greatness and a clear connection with the fans. Many players who are fortunate to have one can even parlay the nickname into some business endeavor. It can also establish a legacy long after the player's career is done.
Ranidel De Ocampo should therefore not worry about his nickname based on his initials back then and in the future. He will always remain a standard for stretch fours in the Philippine basketball landscape. Other nicknames just don't seem to match his talents and allow us to recall him like RDO.
Sev Sarmenta is a veteran sportscaster who has covered the PBA, UAAP, and PSL, as well as the Southeast Asian Games, Asian Games, and Olympics for over 30 years.