x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The subtle art of deception in sport

Athletes motives for changing their name have varied, from self-promotion to deception, simplification and edification.

Metta World Peace, right, the LA Lakers forward formerly known as Ron Artest, is trying to reinvent his image.
Metta World Peace, right, the LA Lakers forward formerly known as Ron Artest, is trying to reinvent his image.

Professional athletes reinventing themselves can be a tricky business, especially when incremental steps such as changing shirt numbers, joining new clubs or opening a Twitter account yield to the radical notion of a name change.

Ron Artest, the Los Angeles Lakers veteran, 10 days ago was decreed by a court in California to legally be known as Metta World Peace, a hopeful but slightly absurd moniker for a player still best known for instigating the worst brawl in NBA history.

It is not encouraging that the new Metta World Peace credits Chad Ochocinco of the New England Patriots for having inspired him to make the leap.

Had Mr World Peace done a bit of research, he would have noted that Ochocinco, the former Chad Johnson who dubbed himself with the Spanish words for eight and five (to correspond with his jersey number, 85), was an excellent player under his birth name, and a marginal one since acquiring his new one.

The world of sport provides us with several examples of prominent athletes who have changed their names for reasons other than the religious, embracing appellations that are not just nicknames of the Brazilian footballer sort. Their motives have varied, from self-promotion to deception, simplification and edification.

Ochocinco, now best known for his name, falls into the "self-promotion" category, as does Lloyd Bernard Free, an NBA standout from 30 years ago. He so liked his occasional nickname of "All World" that he legally became World B Free, not out of any sense of internationalism, but as a reminder of his perceived status among the global basketball elite.

The most prominent deceiver is perhaps the greatest boxer in history, "Sugar" Ray Robinson, born Walker Smith Jr. The young man used the name of an older friend, Ray Robinson, to gain entry to an age-group boxing competition, and since then no one suggests that "Walker Smith" be included in any discussions of "best pound-for-pound" fighters.

A more grubby example of the deception genre came to light last week, when the Florida Marlins pitcher, Leo Nunez, was discovered to be Juan Carlos Oviedo, a Dominican who apparently lied about his name as well as his birth date to help secure his first baseball contract. Under either name, he is unlikely to be able to return to the US.

Among those who went for streamlined appellations are the boxers Willie Pep (Guglielmo Papaleo) and Tony Zale (Anthony Florian Saleski), the baseball player Connie Mack (Cornelius McGillicuddy) and the Australian cricketer Len Pascoe (Leonard Stephen Durtanovich). And who can blame them?

Among the most curious name choices in modern sports history is that of another NBA player. Born Brian Williams, the US basketball player chose, at age 28, to be known as Bison Dele, commemorating, he said, his descent from Native American and African stock.

The bison was a herd animal at the centre of Plains Indian culture, and Dele was the name of a Nigerian brought to the States as a slave. In 2002, Dele apparently was murdered by his brother Miles Dabord, previously known as Kevin Williams.

Milton "JR" Henderson renamed himself for a particularly straightforward reason: money. The former NBA player moved to Japan to continue his basketball career. Because he wanted to play on the Japanese national team, as well as to avoid a salary cap on foreign players, he became JR Sakuragi, Japanese for "cherry blossom", to help secure citizenship.

How well Metta World Peace will work out for the former Ron Artest is not yet clear. "Metta" apparently comes from Sanskrit and means "loving kindness" and "World Peace" is self-explanatory.

Nothing wrong with those sentiments, but his motives may not be entirely altruistic. He will have the words "World Peace" on the back of his Lakers jersey, and he told ESPN Radio that "everybody can get ready to buy their World Peace jerseys". A part of the proceeds will come to him.

It is perhaps unkind to note that athletes who have changed their names for reasons other than necessity or ease of use, often have the words "eccentric" or "erratic" attached to them. That would apply to Artest, certainly, who thanked his psychiatrist after the Lakers won the 2010 NBA championship.

The earliest returns for Metta World Peace are not promising; soon after gaining his new name he was the first celebrity contestant voted off the Dancing With the Stars television competition.

Apparently, the judges and fans had trouble visualising World Peace as a winner. Worse, he will be 33 next season and clearly on the back side of his NBA career, whatever name he goes by.


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