Sugar, Sweetness, Cornbread, Magic, Sly, Fly, Night Train, Truck, Tank, Tree, Goose, Meadowlark, Ice, Big Daddy, Tiny, World . . .
By turning people into things, we rob them. We steal dignity, respect and pride. Nicknames are labels. You are not Earvin, you are magic, and you are cool as ice, you are not George. Bill Russell won't sign autographs because it is a theft of his humanity. He'll shake hands and look you in the eye, but he won't give you his name.
Bill Russell never had a nickname.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. didn't want a slave's name.
Cedric Maxwell said he is a man, not a piece of cornbread. Sometimes now the Boston media call him Cedric, a name that fits more nicely on an English lord, say, than on the second banana in a minstrel show.
A word of caution. This will be a bumpy ride today. Passengers are asked to please not talk to the driver while the wheels are in motion, for we'll try to answer a hard question. Is this Dr. Dunk-Chocolate Thunder stuff a subtle racism distorting our perceptions of gifted human beings? Is Eric Floyd diminished by being Sleepy?
Russell doesn't think so. "If he says Sleepy is his name and he answers to it, that's fine," he said. "Demeaning? Why? Whizzer White did all right, didn't he? And 'Whizzer' isn't much better than 'Sleepy.'"
Sports nicknames cross racial lines. Choo Choo is on the same track with Night Train; Hacksaw is as angry as Tank, and Pee Wee stands as tall as Tiny. Slick is white, and Babe hit 60 four decades before Jackie Robinson escaped the back of the bus.
So what's to worry about Sleepy?
Sleepy helped Snow White, and Sleepy is a buddy's beloved old coach. If Eric Floyd is content to be Sleepy--and he is--maybe we make too much of it.
Nope. A sociologist once said he determined the race of athletes simply by listening to TV; blacks are said to succeed on size and animal skills, he said, while whites are cunning and creative. The media paint black basketball players as aging discards, an NBA pro once said, while whites are revered veterans. The truth is clear for any who will see. Exceptions confirm it.
I have never written the name Sleepy Floyd. He is a wonderful athlete and a bright young man. I don't know why I avoided the nickname, except it didn't fit. Now comes an unsigned letter from a reader; the letter gives a lot of good reasons we should call him Eric Floyd, not Sleepy.
Understand this first: Floyd has no trouble with Sleepy. Some childhood baseball buddies in North Carolina gave him the nickname for daydreaming in the outfield. Now that he is an all-America basketball player at Georgetown University, Floyd sees the name as positive. It symbolizes, he says, poise.
"As long as people don't look at it in a negative way, as long as they realize it has nothing to do with my awareness, it doesn't bother me," Floyd said. "Whether it's demeaning or not depends on your viewpoint and upbringing. From where I came from, I look at it as positive. Cool on the court, never rattled."
Most unsigned letters are trash. In an exception, the writer is worried that Floyd hurts himself with the nickname. The writer says it is racially demeaning, reinforcing stereotypes. Instead of seeing a bright young man working hard at life, as Floyd is, the writer says the name enables people to misjudge him without knowing him.
". . . for Eric Floyd to continue to be known across the nation as 'Sleepy' Floyd can only be counterproductive to his image and serve as a negative factor in his quest to acquire success as a professional person once his basketball-playing days are over," the letter writer said.
". . . I foresee the following scenario in 1983: Eric Floyd, former Georgetown hotshot, is released from professional basketball, a la Craig Shelton, Steve Sheppard, Maurice Howard, etc. He pursues a law degree. After passing the bar, he approaches the law firm of Abercrombie, Steinblum and Winterhalter, who are looking for a young lawyer with a name well-known in D.C. . . .
"Mr. Floyd's resume is presented to Abercrombie, the crusty, white-haired barrister who was bred on Philadelphia's Society Hill. He states to his secretary, 'Eric Floyd? I dare say, I don't seem to recollect the name.' The secretary replies, 'Oh, you remember Sleepy, don't you?'
"An image races through the senior lawyer's mind: Abercrombie, Steinblum, Winterhalter--and Sleepy? He then tells the secretary, 'Tell Mr. Sleepy, don't call us, we'll call him.'
"Sound far-fetched? Maybe not. I think you get the picture."
Floyd's coach, John Thompson, said he received a similar letter a year ago. "I more agree with the guy than disagree," Thompson said. "As part of Eric's education, I gave him the letter, to make up his own mind. The pity is that our society is such that we have to deal with these stereotypes. But it is reality. You just cannot afford the luxury of having Sleepy for a nickname when you're black. As a kid, I thought 'Amos and Andy' was tremendously funny, but I laughed in private because blacks can't afford the luxury of laughing at stereotypes that say they are dumb or lazy."
Floyd said he wouldn't keep the nickname always.
"I'll drop it," he said, "and maybe before I'm done playing basketball. When I go to the big law firm, I will have negated the name."