11 Reasons Athletes Change Their Names

Claus Andersen, BIG3/Getty Images
Claus Andersen, BIG3/Getty Images

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.

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This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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Double Play: The Curious Life and Career of Ozzie Canseco

Otto Gruele, Allsport/Getty Images
Otto Gruele, Allsport/Getty Images

“Jose, we love you! Jose, you suck!” It’s 1992 in Louisville, Kentucky, and a man who bears a striking resemblance to major league home run king Jose Canseco is smashing baseballs out of Triple-A ballparks for the Louisville Redbirds, the minor league sibling of the St. Louis Cardinals.

A screen erected specifically for home runs at Pilot Field in Buffalo, New York, fails to contain one 550-foot drive. The ball goes over the screen and past the highway.

“Good job, Jose!”

Before and after games, the six-foot-two, 220-pound slugger will be asked about dating Madonna (he didn’t), antagonized into fights (he avoids them, mostly), and begged for autographs. When he signs his name, fans appear confused. They tell him to stop joking around. Doesn’t he know he’s Jose Canseco, perpetual All-Star and prolific masher of baseballs? Who ever heard of Ozzie Canseco, Jose’s identical twin, born two minutes earlier to Jose Canseco Sr. and his wife, Barbara? And if they are identical, why is it that Jose was earning millions as a member of the Oakland Athletics while Ozzie only made sporadic appearances in the majors?

Ozzie tried to explain all of these things over and over again. Every time he thought people got the message, he would head back out into the world, hearing his brother’s name. Once, a car veered and tried to run him off the road. When Ozzie hit the shoulder, the other driver laughed, as if it were a joke, and then referred to him as Jose.

 

There are relatively few examples of twins who excelled equally in sports. Ronde and Tiki Barber were both selected in the 1997 NFL Draft and had successful careers; Karyne and Sarah Steben, both accomplished gymnasts, toured with Cirque du Soleil and credited their psychological connection with helping them perform difficult aerial feats.

More often, siblings of star athletes idle in the shadows cast by their high-achieving counterparts.

Hank Aaron’s brother Tommie joined him in professional baseball. Hank hit 755 home runs during his career; Tommie connected with 13. There were three DiMaggio brothers, though it was Joe—the onetime husband of Marilyn Monroe—who stood out both on and off the field. Had any of these men looked identical to their famous brother, it would have compounded the comparisons. It’s unlikely anyone ever tried to run Tommie Aaron off the road.

Ozzie Canseco plays for the Oakland Athletics in a Major League Baseball game
Otto Gruele Jr, Getty Images

Born on July 2, 1964, Osvaldo “Ozzie” Capas Canseco and Jose Canseco would soon be another sports sibling story.

The two were barely a year old when their parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba. Both grew up learning to play "the great American pastime." Jose, an outfielder who could wallop a ball out of sight, was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 1982 straight out of high school. After polishing his skills in the minor leagues for three years, he briefly debuted as a late-season call-up for the Athletics in 1985. His official rookie season came in 1986, when he went on to hit 33 home runs and knock in 117 RBIs, resulting in Rookie of the Year honors.

Ozzie, who had played as much baseball as his brother, decided to take a year for college. Instead of being a power hitter, Ozzie had gravitated toward pitching. The New York Yankees drafted him in 1983. After four largely unimpressive years on the mound in the minor leagues, he was released by the Yankees and picked up by the Oakland Athletics organization in 1986 to further develop his skills.

It amounted to a genetic experiment in sports: Two men, nearly identical in build—Jose was an inch taller and perhaps 10 pounds heavier—who played the same game for the same amount of time. In 1989, the two even suffered the exact same injury to the hamate bone in the hand. Yet it was Jose who became a sensation, earning exponentially increasing millions and stats for the Athletics and the Texas Rangers, while Ozzie struggled to get called up.

The problem, according to Ozzie, was that he had pitched for too long, refining a skill that wouldn’t pay the same dividends as an outfielder and star hitter. All those years pitching put him behind Jose and behind the game. When he was finally called up to the Athletics as an outfielder in 1990, the difference in ability when compared to Jose was obvious. After 20 homers and 67 RBIs with the Huntsville Stars farm team, he managed only a .105 batting average in nine MLB games during his first season, striking out in 10 of his 19 at-bats. Meanwhile, in 1988, Jose became the first MLB player in history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season—a feat only three players have replicated since. When Ozzie struck out in his first Athletics game, Jose hit two home runs.

 

Pundits tried to break down Ozzie’s deficiencies. Superficially, he had everything Jose had, including a powerful build that was likely bolstered by steroids. (Jose admitted to using performance-enhancing substances in his 2005 tell-all book, Juiced; Ozzie was arrested for driving in a car that contained vials of steroids during a traffic stop in 2003. Jose later told VICE that Ozzie "used the same type of steroids I used and in equal amounts.") But experts pointed out that Jose was more flexible, with a better range of motion in his swing and a faster sprint. He seemed to be more aggressive during play, too. These were subtle differences, but enough for Jose to make three World Series appearances while Ozzie toiled in the minors.

Ozzie Canseco bats for the Oakland Athletics during a Major League Baseball game
Otto Gruele Jr, Getty Images

Dejected, Ozzie headed for Japan to play for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes to sharpen his game against different kinds of pitches. Playing for the Japanese equivalent of a farm team in Osaka, he quit midway through the season to return to the U.S. minors, joining the Louisville Redbirds, the Cardinals Triple-A team. In 1993, he got a chance to jump on the Cardinals for six uneventful games. When Bernard Gilkey came off the disabled list, Ozzie was bumped back down. In frustration, he briefly quit baseball before signing a contract with the Triple-A arm of the Milwaukee Brewers and, later, the Florida Marlins.

After being released by the Marlins in 1996, he remarked it was the first summer he had not played baseball since he was a kid. While other people may have confused him for Jose, baseball’s management did not.

 

If Ozzie was never quite his brother’s equal on the field, he found parity in other ways. For years, rumors circulated that Ozzie would show up in place of Jose for autograph signings. The two also got in nearly equivalent legal trouble for a 2001 nightclub brawl in Miami Beach that ended in probation and a civil lawsuit against both.

In what was probably their most audacious attempt to fool people, Ozzie reportedly showed up for a 2011 celebrity boxing match claiming he was Jose, who had performed in prizefights against the likes of Danny Bonaduce. Promoter Damon Feldman claimed he had paid Jose $5000 and that he was confused when Ozzie finally removed his shirt. (He lacks the bicep tattoo sported by his brother). Feldman had him escorted out and filed a complaint for breach of contract, winning a default judgment against Jose for the $5000 advance and travel expenses. Feldman later expressed doubt he had ever actually met Jose. (On Twitter, Jose Canseco denied Feldman’s claim that he had sent Ozzie in his place.)

In 2015, Ozzie was named the hitting coach for the Sioux Falls Canaries, a Double-A team in South Dakota. Not long after, he and his brother once again confused onlookers when Ozzie fooled his on-air correspondents into thinking “Jose” had arrived to film a segment for his role as an analyst for an NBC broadcast. It was a bit of levity that may have indicated that the years removed from the field had allowed Ozzie to feel more comfortable—both in his own skin and his brother’s.

It was a long time coming. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1994, Ozzie lamented the peculiar reality of resembling his brother in every aspect but the one that mattered to him most. “It’s difficult to explain my existence as Ozzie Canseco on a daily basis,” he said.