When LeBron James first ran into Andre Drummond at the practice facility shortly after the Lakers signed the veteran center, there was just one question he desperately needed to ask his new teammate.
“Yo, is your nickname Big Penguin?” James asked.
It’s a story Drummond himself recalls while laughing, while also claiming he had no idea where the nickname came from.
“All I know is that someone must have found out that penguins are one of my favorite animals, and kind of put and two together,” Drummond said.
But to say penguins are merely one of Drummond’s favorite animals, however, is an understatement on par with saying that basketball is one of his best sports. Drummond loves penguins so much that he used to dress up as one on Vine, and appreciates the little birds so fully that when Stance once gave him a signature sock, he chose to put penguins on it.
The origin of the nickname goes back deeper, when — as dug up by Sam Quinn of CBS — Drummond told former teammate Greg Monroe that his favorite three movies were March of the Penguins, Happy Feet and Happy Feet 2.
“Maybe we should start calling you ‘The Big Penguin,’” Monroe replied.
And with that, a nickname was born. But regardless of the origin, “The Big Penguin” moniker has taken flight since Drummond arrived in Los Angeles, gaining usage everywhere from LeBron’s queries in the practice facility, to Twitter, to even the television broadcasts featuring the team. Spectrum SportsNet play-by-play broadcaster Bill McDonald called Drummond “The Big Penguin” repeatedly on the team’s local feed right after Drummond signed, and ESPN sideline reporter Jorge Sedano even asked Drummond about it on national television.
Drummond tells @Sedano he's fine with the Big Penguin nickname pic.twitter.com/oEuya2jGPc— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 17, 2021
But in the end, all of it still left me with just one enduring question: Does Andre Drummond actually resemble a penguin in any way? To find out, I reached out to Dyan deNapoli, a penguin expert known in professional circles simply as “The Penguin Lady.”
deNapoli spent nine years as a Penguin Aquarist the New England Aquarium, has written multiple books about penguins, and has given TED talks on penguin conservation. All in all, there is probably no one on the planet more qualified to answer questions about the adorable, flightless and aquatic birds, and whether or not Drummond lives up to his nickname.
But first, let’s get this part out of the way: As much fun as it is to tweet penguin gifs to describe whatever Drummond is doing on the court, deNapoli wrote in an email that she “honestly didn’t see anything about his movements that resembled a penguin, or a penguin’s gait.” The same goes for when I asked her if there was any similarity between how quick Drummond is for his size, and how aerodynamic penguins are in the water.
“While it’s true that penguins are incredibly adapted for swimming effortlessly through water due to their streamlined form, I’d have a tough time drawing some sort of connection between that and Drummond’s physique. The only connection I could make regarding any commonality in physique would be that the Emperor penguin is the largest penguin,” deNapoli said.
Penguins can’t fly, but Andre can. pic.twitter.com/GjGgV4v0dz— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 17, 2021
Still, there are at least a few similarities between Drummond and his nicknamesake. One is in how friendly he is with the media. During his brief time in Los Angeles so far, it’s quickly become clear that Drummond is happy to be sociable with the press — most notably how he excitedly yells “Kyle Goon!” whenever the O.C. Register’s Lakers beat reporter is called on during postgame Zoom sessions — and it’s a trait he shares with penguins.
No, not his affinity for Kyle Goon, who I cannot personally verify if penguins like or not, but in how because penguins have very few natural land predators, they’re unafraid to get friendly with those photographing or otherwise chronicling them, sometimes coming right up to nature photographers or other observers.
“Different penguin species vary in their gregariousness around humans (both in the wild and in captivity). In some places in particular (the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, and South Georgia Island), most penguins seem to be pretty unconcerned about the visiting humans – and some species are actually very interested in them, and will approach people and even nibble at them and their gear,” deNapoli wrote, adding that at most colonies people are asked to keep their distance from penguins, but that the little birds will often curiously come right up to humans to investigate them if they stand still for long enough.
“The species that I’ve noticed are particularly gregarious with humans in the wild are Gentoo penguins and King penguins,” deNapoli added, passing along as evidence photos of a particularly friendly and inquisitive adult Gentoo penguin that came right up to chew on her camera on South Georgia island two years ago, and a Gentoo chick that kept trying to jump into her lap.
I include these both for research purposes, and also because penguins might be the cutest animals on the planet.
Just from those photos alone, it’s easy to see why Drummond loves penguins. The only problem? When I asked him if he liked the nickname, his support for it was tepid.
“I think I need a more aggressive nickname than Big Penguin,” Drummond said, laughing. “But the kids can call me that.”
But look, if we’re going to all have fun with the nickname, the least we can do is try to figure out a way we can tweak it to more properly fit one of the best and most aggressive rebounders in the history of the NBA. So I asked deNapoli if there are any aggressive kinds of penguins.
Here is her response in full:
So, the most notoriously aggressive penguin species is the Adélie penguin. This is an iconic penguin from Antarctica, and it has a reputation for being pretty feisty and ornery. However, this species is named after the wife (Adéle) of the explorer who first described it, so that may not be the most macho nickname!
Two other species that have a reputation for being aggressive are the Chinstrap penguin and the Rockhopper penguin. The Chinstrap is also from Antarctica, and one of their nicknames is the Stonecracker penguin (due to the shrill call that they make). And Rockhopper penguins are named for their ability to jump great distances with much agility – they move about very quickly by jumping rather than walking. They also LOOK the most aggressive with their red eyes and yellow crest feathers that look like wild eyebrows. (I’ve attached a few photos of them for you.)
The Short-crested Rockhoppers (those in the photos) also have a very loud, shrill call that is pretty ear-piercing. Those of us who have worked with this species called them Rockies. Given his sport, I think this species would be the most fitting. (And, even though they aren’t an aggressive species, Emperor would be fitting for the other reasons, and pretty cool as well.)
As the largest penguins, Emperor Penguin might be the most fitting for one of the 10th-largest player in the NBA, although it might lead to more queries from LeBron in the hallways of the Lakers’ practice facility. After all, is a man who calls himself the King really going to let a teammate call himself the Emperor?
So I’m sorry Andre. After all this, and regardless of zoological legitimacy, “The Big Penguin” is too good of a nickname to not be here to stay.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen, and you can find resources to help with penguin conservation on deNapoli’s personal website.