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.
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.”
Stephen 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.
This is a situation few could’ve foreseen several years ago when Abudurexiti, a member of the Uighur ethnic minority group in China, began practicing regularly and playing basketball competitively at 16 years old. His love of the game has grown ever since he joined the Xinjiang Guanghui Flying Tigers before playing for the Chinese National Team during the FIBA World Championship Asian Qualifiers, an experience he cherished. “I learned about team pride,” Abudurexiti told The Athletic in an email interview through his USA-based agency, Edge Sports International. “There’s no better feeling than representing your country. My national team experience has taught me that it’s about the team and not about individual statistics. Just do whatever I have to do to help my team win. Winning the game is all that matters.”
The NBA has expanded its international presence during the last few decades — the teams had a record number of international players competing in the 2018 NBA playoffs and the league has won millions of new fans across the globe. From a business perspective, the league has already had success in Asia: China is the NBA’s largest market outside the United States. But, NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO Mark Tatum told CNBC’s “Street Signs” that his organization is looking elsewhere in the continent for even more growth. “Three hundred million people played the game of basketball in China. We are the No. 1 sport there. We have a big partnership with Tencent, which distributes our games through League Pass, and they distribute some 600 games or so every year,” he said.