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Essay: Win or lose, let's discuss the name of the game, LaceDarius Dunn

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010; C01

At first it was difficult to understand just what the announcers were saying.

That soft C in the middle of the kid's name made them pause, and made it sound like they were mumbling the rest.

I was surfing the Web as my husband watched the Duke-Baylor NCAA semifinal Sunday, but I looked up each time they said it.

After about four times, I got it.

But I couldn't believe it.

LaceDarius.

LaceDarius. Pronounced lace-darius.

"LaceDarius Dunn comes up with the ball," said the commentator.

"Wow," I said to my husband, Ralph. "Which team does he play for -- Baylor or Duke?"

My husband, who played football for the Blue Devils, just looked at me coolly. "It's gotta be Baylor," he said. "Duke does not recruit players named LaceDarius."

Turns out he was onto something (former Duke basketball standout Trajan Shaka Langdon notwithstanding).

For the rest of the afternoon, I couldn't let it go. Of all the urgent questions coming out of the tournament, mine felt the most pressing.

One: LaceDarius? Biblical, maybe?

Two: Um, WHAT in the world???

This is not to say a word against the gifted young man whose athletic prowess lifted his team to a school-record 28 victories this season and whose mama gushes when she talks about him. But the name, emblematic of many, does offer a point of contemplation. Cries out for a meditation on whether, as a culture, we've reached a bridge too far.

Makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands!

As a black woman with a derivative name -- my father was Lonnie -- I give people a wide berth.

I'm generally cool with Barack-solid names that go back to the roots or are layered with culture and meaning. My friend Jabari (which means brave), an author and University of Illinois professor, named his youngest son Gyasi (which means wonderful one). I make plenty of room for garden-variety ethnic monikers -- when my friend Lafayetta (!) brings up her aunt's ex-husband, Flowmont (!!!), I think it's all good.

I can even get on board with the folks inspired by inanimate objects, because, who knows, perhaps it's an urge informed by the same opaque sensibilities that drive outsider art.

* * *

My former boss once mentioned a story featuring a little girl named Formica Dinette, and I tried to imagine the hospital scene, just before the mother's final push.

"If it's a girl, I'll call her Formica Dinette," says the mother, eyes wide, slightly askew.

Doctors and nurses: kinda lookin' at each other.

Med tech: Whattha[heck!]?

Urban legend has it that, somewhere, there's a set of twins named Lemongelo and Lorangelo, maybe named for the vitamin C in their mama's diet. But that seems in perfect keeping with the impish sophisticate who gives in to her whimsy. After all, think of Gwyneth Paltrow in a London hospital, reaching for her newborn daughter, Apple.

Mark Gray is a host for "The Sports Groove" on WOL-AM and the Heritage Sports Radio Network. In following the NCAA tournament, he says, "I just trip off the whole collection of Michigan State names." That would be Raymar Morgan, Draymond Green, Kalin Lucas and Delvon Roe. "I was like, damn, coach went out and got himself some 'round-the-way dudes in the 'hood to go after another championship!"

When Gray heard the name LaceDarius, he instantly thought of "a villain in 'Matrix' II. . . . He sounds like the dude who may take Morpheus out, then you'd have LaceDarius fighting Neo. I got it all plotted."

Gray says he has seen an explosion of created names. "For years, when I was doing games in the South, it was almost like doing an international broadcast where you've got to have phonetic pronunciations," Gray says. He has even seen conventional words and titles repurposed as names. "I was doing a football game at Alabama A&M and one of the players was named Lieutenant Dukes. I don't know, maybe his mom was seeing a guy in the service."

* * *

If the person is a standout, an unconventional name can become synonymous with his or her cool: LeBron James. Thelonious Monk. Beyoncé. But it's not so cool when a Trayvondez (I made that one up!) doesn't graduate high school or Lonnae-nae (made that one up, too!!) winds up waaay off Broadway. When a person is losing at life, the unusual name can feel like a different kind of cultural shorthand.

Elza Dinwiddie-Boyd, author of 1994's "Proud Heritage: 11,001 Names for your African-American Baby," found many of the names in the pages of sports magazines. She applauds the creativity but worries that what started in the wake of the black power movement as statements of cultural assertion, of "I am somebody," is at risk of stigmatizing.

In an interview this week, she cites a recent MIT-University of Chicago study that indicated that job applicants with "black-sounding" names were 50 percent less likely to get a response to their résumés than similarly qualified applicants with "white-sounding" names.

In 2005, David N. Figlio, a professor of social policy at Northwestern University, used a computer algorithm to correlate the sounds and spellings in children's names with the mother's level of education. He found patterns among white, black and Latino parents that allowed him to predict whether or not the mother had graduated high school.

"LaQuisha was considerably less like to have a high-school-graduate mom than Lakisha, and if you put in an apostrophe, La'Quisha, it was less likely still," he says.

White parents tend to jazz up their spelling rather than invent names, Figlio found. You'll see the name Alexander but spelled Alexzander. "That's almost exclusively white," he says. And if it's spelled Alixander, "that name comes with a likelihood that the mom was a high school dropout."

A number of ethnically identifiable names are associated with success, says Figlio. "One of my first girlfriends was Ebony, and she's a neurologist."

But the larger point is that in all races, children with unusual names are often penalized. "Teachers and other members of society, even if they are not thinking about it, use names as a way of judging a child's upbringing," Figlio says. And kids with nonstandard names do worse in school, he found, even in the same families.

* * *

To get the story on LaceDarius, I went straight to the source. Roena (Row-eena) Lee says she got part of her son's name from his father, Lacey, but doesn't know how she came up with the whole thing. Lee, who has an associate's degree in child care, manages a barbecue restaurant called Podnuh's in Monroe, a predominantly black city of about 50,000 in Northeast Louisiana. She also has a daughter named Roniquia (Roe-nee-quee-ah) and a son named DaVarious. Roniquia has an 8-year-old daughter, Corniquia; DaVarious, who will study engineering at Grambling in the fall, has a DaVarious Jr.

Lee loves her kids' names, loves that they're the only ones who have them, loves the attention she gets when she says them. "I get excited and everybody's like, 'Where you get that from?' " Across the telephone line, you can feel the smile lighting her face.

Lee says even her mother gave her a hard time over her son's name. "She said, 'Roena, you gonna name this boy LaceDarius?' And I said, 'Yeah, Mama. I can't sit up and think of no other name. That's what his name is going to be.' "

At birth, LaceDarius had a large head and big shoulders, and doctors were preparing to give Lee an emergency C-section when all of a sudden, "this boy just popped out," Lee says. "I said this boy is going to be something one day, and here he is." People stop her on the street to congratulate her on his success.

So what does LaceDarius think?

He says girls used to call him Shoelace and he usually has to repeat his name two or three times before people get it. " 'Is it Lace and Darius? Is it two names?' " they'll ask. Ask him if he likes his name and he chuckles. "I've had it for 23 years. I can't change it. I turned it into a popular name that people come to know through the things I do," he says. "I'm enjoying it."

The Baylor star hopes to play in the NBA and be a head coach. He has a 2-year-old son . . . and the question hangs in the air. Name?

Dillion, says Dunn.

You didn't want want a LaceDarius Jr.?

"No. Not really. No, ma'am," Dunn says, and his mother interrupts.

Mother to son: "I thought you liked your name," Lee teases.

"I do," Dunn says. "But I just didn't want to keep it going. I want to be the one and only."

I, for one, think he made a good call.

I found myself wishing Baylor had beaten Duke, just so I could hear the rhythm of LaceDarius Dunn over and over again. For some parents, calling their children by pretty sounds is aspirational. A way to lift people out of the regular-old of their surroundings. A little poetry in a workaday life.

I thought back to the day I watched the game. Baylor lost to Duke, 78-71, in a heartbreaker, as all losses in the NCAA tournament are. And as the young Baylor players walked off, some perhaps to the last applause they'll ever get, LaceDarius was trailed closely by his teammate, and friend since 10th grade, Tweety Carter.

I just shook my head and smiled. Tweety -- now there's a solid name for you.

Actually, his real name is Demond Carvez Carter.

Special correspondent Carl Little contributed to this report.

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