11 Reasons Athletes Change Their Names

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Lakers star Ron Artest made waves this summer when he announce he was changing his name to Metta World Peace. Although it's one of the more extreme moves, it's far from the first time an athlete has adopted a strange name. Here are 11 great (and not-so-great) reasons athletes make the switch.

1. To get more credit

Midway through his career, boxer Marvin Hagler felt that he wasn’t getting enough attention and praise from the media. In 1982 –- after he had already won a world championship –- he finally decided that he would force announcers to start giving him his due. He legally added the nickname “Marvelous” to his name so that nobody could mention him without using the full name “Marvelous Marvin Hagler.”

2. To join the Japanese national team

Although he was drafted to the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1998, Milton "J.R." Henderson never really caught on and eventually left to play overseas. In 2001, he found his way to Japan and became a key player for the Aisin Seahorses. Wanting to play for the Japanese national team and become more integrated in his new home, Henderson eventually applied to become a Japanese citizen in 2008. On top of the standard naturalization process, Henderson thought things might go faster if he took a Japanese name, so he legally adopted “J.R. Sakuragi.” The last name translates to “cherry blossom tree,” but also happens to be the name of the hero in the basketball-themed manga “Slam Dunk.”

3. To (try to) win a Heisman

In 1970, Notre Dame quarterback Joe Theismann (pronounced THEES-man) led the team to a 10-1 record and was named an All-American, gathering a great deal of national hype. To help his bid for the Heisman trophy, Notre Dame publicity guru Roger Valdiserri insisted that Theismann change the pronunciation of his name to rhyme with the award as a marketing trick. Although he lost to Stanford’s Jim Plunkett, the new pronunciation stuck and Theismann (now pronounced THIGHS-man) eventually led the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl victory. Theismann would later tell the Los Angeles Times that in order to make the switch, he had to run it by his grandmother, who gave her approval and revealed that the name was actually supposed to be pronounced TICE-man.

4. To follow a new religion

A number of pro athletes have changed their name after converting to Islam, headlined by Cassius Clay changing his name to Muhammad Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam. UCLA center Lew Alcindor famously became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he converted in 1971. Former NFL running back Bobby Moore changed his name to Ahmad Rashad upon conversion, and NBA player Chris Jackson changed his to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf when he converted in 1991.

5. To settle a lawsuit with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Born Sharmon Shah, the UCLA running back changed his name to Karim Abdul-Jabbar in 1995 after being given the name by his imam. Abdul-Jabbar closed out his senior season with the name and eventually entered the NFL, where he played for the Miami Dolphins. While setting the franchise rookie rushing record, he attracted the attention of the retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 1998, the basketball player filed suit against the NFL star, pointing out a number of similarities between the two. Both had gone to UCLA, both wore uniform number 33 (although the NFL player Abdul-Jabbar insists it was a tribute to Tony Dorsett) and both, obviously, had the same name. In fact, many people mistakenly thought that the running back was the NBA Hall of Famer’s son. Eventually, the NFL player changed his name to Abdul to comply with the lawsuit and, in 2000, changed his name to Abdul-Karim al-Jabbar. In the meantime, all jerseys with his original name were taken off store shelves.

6. To make a nickname more official

If you had a great nickname, wouldn't you want to make it official? For example, there's former Dolphins wide receiver Mark Duper, who legally added the middle name “Super” to go by Mark Super Duper. Or the Minnesota Twins relief pitcher John Paul Bonser, who legally adopted his long-time nickname “Boof” as his first name. Or former NBA player Lloyd Bernard Free who decided to incorporate his nickname “All-World” and changed it to the message-laden World B. Free. And of course there's the mixed martial arts fighter and sometimes porn actor who used to go by Jon Koppenhaver, but changed his name to War Machine.

But the most famous nickname adoption has to be Chad Johnson, the then-Bengals wide receiver who changed his name to Chad Ochocinco in 2008 to reflect his uniform number (85, although the nickname literally translates to “eight five”). He stuck with the change despite some conflict with the NFL and a promise to change it back if he was held catchless in a 2010 game against the Jets (he was). In 2009, he announced that he’d be switching his name to Chad Hachi Go, which translates to “eight five” in Japanese, but did not go through with it.

7. To get rid of a common name

Jose Gonzalez Uribe played eight games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984 before he was traded, along with three teammates, to the San Francisco Giants. During the trade, he changed his name to drop the Gonzalez, going by simply Jose Uribe. The reason? “There are too many Gonzálezes in baseball,” he told reporters. His name change during the trade led to him jokingly being called “the ultimate player to be named later” by his new coach Rocky Bridges.

8. To be more like Kristi Yamaguchi

When figure skater Rudy Galindo first met fellow skating star Kristi Yamaguchi, he felt there was an instant connection. Although they didn’t immediately start skating as a pair, they did often skate in the same events and started to be seen as a team. When they started competing in pairs competitions together, Galindo and Yamaguchi grew closer. Finally, he took the ultimate step and changed the spelling of his name to “Rudi” to make their names more similar.

9. To be more like a favorite Teen Wolf character

In 2008, Tampa Bay defensive end Greg White announced that he had legally changed his name to Stylez G. White, after his favorite character in the 1985 classic Teen Wolf. The character in question was Rupert 'Stiles' Stilinski, the best friend to Michael J. Fox’s Scott Howard (which admittedly would not have been a very interesting name to adopt). About "Stiles," White told the Tampa Bay Tribune, “I always liked that name. It’s not that I don’t like Greg White.”

10. To not get confused with an All-Star

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitcher Ervin Santana didn’t always go by “Ervin.” In fact, his birth name is Johan Ramon Santana. Early in his career, Santana realized that his birth name might conflict slightly with that of another superstar pitcher, then-Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana. So the minor league star decided to make a switch to Ervin. Why Ervin? According to news reports, he simply said “that sounds good” and decided to stick with it.

11. To honor a new-found heritage

During the offseason before his final NBA season, then-Pistons player Brian Williams started doing some genealogical research. When he learned of his Native American and African heritage as part of his "spiritual journey," Williams decided to honor his roots with a name change. He eventually settled on Bison Dele, the first name to honor his Native American roots and the last name because it was a traditional African name. He only played one season as Bison Dele -- he retired in 1999 and disappeared, presumed dead, in 2002.

For 11-11-11, we'll be posting twenty-four '11 lists' throughout the day. Check back 11 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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November 11, 2011 - 3:11pm
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