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A comprehensive guide to NBA baby names

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If we ignore the perennially popular Jordan and all common names, more parents name their kids after Kobe than any other current NBA player. (Or they name their kids Kobe in spite of the Laker.)

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"Jordan" is a very popular name for American babies. In 2013, Jordan was the No. 53 most popular name given to newborn boys. And it's been in the top 100 for a long, long time. If you are 40 years old or younger, chances are you grew up with a Jordan or two. You might have a co-worker named Jordan. You've probably known some young children named Jordan. Jordan is even a popular girls name and has been for decades.

What I've always wondered is whether the prominence of Michael Jordan had anything to do with the name's rise or its continued popularity. So I turned to the Social Security Administration's baby name database to find out. The results are inconclusive.

MJ Baby Names

As you can see in the chart above, Jordan has been a popular first name for boys basically forever. It has been among the top-100 boys' names since MJ's freshman season at North Carolina. But the name's peak (No. 26 in 1997) did coincide with the peak of MJ's basketball career. The boys' name Jordan was most popular from 1990 through 1998, a nine-year stretch during which Michael Jordan won six championships and four NBA MVPs. While it has remained popular since MJ's retirement, that doesn't seem entirely like a coincidence.

There's more interesting information in the girls' name data. Jordan as a girls' name actually follows a rather standard trajectory for trendy names: it comes out of nowhere (as in outside the top 1,000), rockets up the charts until it gains critical mass, stays popular for a decade or three and slides back down toward rareness. "Tiffany" is a classic example: rather rare until the late 1960s, popular during the '70s, extremely popular during the '80s and '90s, much less popular now.

Jordan's run wasn't as long as that one: it's had 25 years in the top-250 girls' names list, with 15 years in the top 100. But it's hard to ignore that the name's peak -- 1990 through 2003 -- corresponds with the peak of MJ's career (with some overlap on the back end).

It's difficult to suss out correlations between the presence of a hegemonic basketball player and the popularity of a baby name when the baby name was already well know and oft used. That is especially so when we're looking at the famous athlete's last name being used as a first name. (Who knows how many Michaels were named after Jordan, or how many kids have the initials MJ as a nod to His Airness.) So let's look at basketball players whose names were not at all common until the athletes made it big.

NBA Baby Names

For a cultural anthropology dork like me, this chart is really interesting. Look at the name "Shaquille": it's only been in the top 1,000 boys' names from 1991 through 1996. Shaquille O'Neal took over college basketball completely in 1990-91 and Kazaam was released in 1996. You do the math.

Kobe was not in the top 1,000 boys' names until 1997, Kobe Bryant's rookie year. It remains in the top 500, dipping down to around No. 500 in 2005 when the Lakers' dynasty ended and picking back up in 2008 when it resumed. It is currently the most-popular, obviously NBA-infused baby name I can find. (If you find another I've missed, please share.)

Carmelo entered the top 1,000 boys' names in 2004, which was Carmelo Anthony's rookie season with the Nuggets and the year after he led Syracuse to a national championship. The name saw a huge bump in popularity in 2011, which happens to be when Melo was traded to the Knicks. I do not think that's a coincidence.

Melo's cohort Amar'e Stoudemire seems linked to the rise of that first name. Amare (no apostrophe, that is) went from unranked in 2004 to No. 631 in 2005, which happened to be Stoudemire's first All-Star season. He joined the Knicks midway through 2010. The name saw big bumps in popularity in 2010 and 2011. It peaked there and has since noticeably fallen in popularity.

Kyrie is shooting up the charts in boys name popularity. In fact, it had the 10th-biggest popularity ranking increase from 2012 to 2013. Kyrie was not in the top 1,000 boys' names until 2012. Kyrie Irving was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and the runaway 2011-12 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Here's a weird note, though: the most famous current basketball player of all -- LeBron -- hasn't seen his name grace the top 1,000 ever. Neither has the unique spelling of "Dwyane" graced by LeBron's former teammate. Only select, extraordinary names capture the zeitgeist and gain popular mass. Here's to hoping for lots of little Giannises and Jabaris and Jusufs in our future.

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