Spellczechs (and others)

The stories behind hard-to-spell athlete names

In the beginning, there was . . . Tim Biakabutuka?

with 3 comments

I’ve always been a bit of an eclectic, nerdy geek.  My idea of fun in grammar school was to add numbers in my head faster than the teacher could do it on the chalkboard. My mother taught me to play Scrabble at an early age, and some 35 years later, I spend most of my vacation time playing in Scrabble tournaments around the country and studying word lists (no definitions please).  I’m the type of person who never met a pun she didn’t like, and takes pride in being able to recite the powers of 2 beyond any customary need (2 to the 22nd is 4,194,304 for those of you curious).

Sports has always been a big part of my life.  My dad was a Yankee fan, and so I became one, even if we DID live a mere 10-minute train ride from Shea.  I’ve blogged about sports, played softball and basketball, participated in fantasy leagues, and spent entirely too much time watching Joe Morgan opine on baseball.

I have a good friend named Jeremy. We met through Scrabble, and found that we had a mutual love of baseball.  We came up with our own variation of Scrabble, in which the last names of baseball players would be acceptable, and if challenged by your opponent, you would have to state the player’s first name, with Baseball-Reference.com the final judge.  CALZONE doesn’t fit on the board?  Well then, how about one-time Brewers slugger Sixto LEZCANO?

A few weeks ago, Jeremy showed me a newspaper ad for an all-sports spelling bee to be held on June 3rd at the ESPN Zone in Manhattan.  Now, I enjoy watching the kids apply their supple, still spongy brains towards the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But, the last spelling bee I took part in came back at P.S.152 in Queens, and nowadays my synapses aren’t firing quite as frequently.

Still, the thought of a sports-centric bee was intriguing.  No need to remember the proper spelling of laodicean, a word I’ve never had a need to use, nor seen in anything I’ve read.  I could limit it to “words” like “Yastrzemski” and “Krzyzewski”, people/words I’m still reading/using today.  There probably couldn’t be that many sport-related spelling savants . . . I couldn’t conceive that I’d be competing against a bunch of word nerds still living in their parent’s basement not able to go out and play until they nail the correct spelling of the entire South African team World Cup roster.

So, when Jeremy suggested we apply for this contest, I said “sure … why not!”  I didn’t know if we were going to be selected, since they were limiting the competition to about 50 spellers and I was sure the New York metro area could muster up 50 brave souls to do just about anything.  I also didn’t know when we would hear from them if we were selected.  So, I kind of put the Bee out of my mind.

Flash forward to Tuesday, June 1st. I receive the following e-mail:

Dear Contestant,

Congratulations!   You’ve been selected to participate in ESPN Zone’s 3rd Annual Sports Spelling Bee.  The Spelling Bee will take place at ESPN Zone in Times Square on Thursday, June 3rd at 7:00pm.  ESPN Zone is located at 1472 Broadway on the corner of 42nd Street.  Contestants must check in at the registration table on the Mezzanine Level between 6:00pm and 6:30pm.  Contestants who arrive after 6:30pm may be disqualified.  You will need a valid picture ID as you must be 18 years of age or older to participate.

You will be asked to spell the names of sports figures (coaches, players, broadcasters, etc), alive or deceased. We may ask you to spell either the first name OR last name so you should be prepared for either.

You are encouraged to bring along your own cheering section.  Seating will be available on a first come, first served basis.  Please note, there will be food and beverage minimums of $10 per person per hour to be seated at a table in the Screening Room (2nd floor), where the event will take place.  Standing room may also be available at the Screening Room Bar for spectators.

Please send an email to Susan.Abramson@disney.com confirming you received this email and still plan to participate in ESPN Zone’s Sports Spelling Bee.

Thank you and G-O-O-D L-U-C-K!

ESPN Zone New York

Can you say . . . “panic in the cerebellum”?  I’ve just gone from pretty much figuring they picked other folks for the Bee to having barely two days to bone up on every crazy, seemingly made up spelling of every athlete, announcer and sports personality I could find.  Holy good chance of short-term dyslexia, Batman!

I e-mailed Jeremy, wondering if he had also been selected.  Indeed he had.  Well, at least we’d have each other to lean on after the Bee, lamenting blowing our chances on the name of some heretofore unknown Ethiopian marathon runner.  What alcoholic beverage best soothes the tortured linguist?  Probably none of these.

OK . . . now the fun/madness kicked in.  Knowing that there would be a New York-based tilt to many of the words to be spelled, I culled Baseball-Reference.com, Basketball-Reference.com, Football-Reference.com and Hockey-Reference.com for the historical rosters of all nine local pro sports teams.  I then cut and pasted them into Word, and highlighted those names that were at least somewhat well-known and definitely tricky in terms of spelling.

From there, I figured there had to be a multitude of articles and possibly even websites dealing with quirky athlete names.  To my chagrin, I found the Internet sadly lacking.  Oh sure, there was the usual Yahoo! Answers question regarding the proper spelling of “Coach K”, and a blog post detailing how the globalization of sports has made phonetic spellings a major part of team media guides.  But there wasn’t one central repository of hard-to-spell names.

So, I picked from what I could find.  I asked my friends on Facebook and my sports-minded Scrabble friends if they knew of any lists, or had any odd names to pass along.  A couple of people sent me a link to a Sports Illustrated photo gallery entitled “Hardest Names to Spell in Sports” from 2007, featuring 17 brain-benders.  I cut and pasted each of the 17 names, along with their phonetic pronunciations.  I found a few more articles scattered about, and cut and pasted names from those pieces.  Soon I had a list of about 30 toughies to go along with my “all-NY sports team” groups.

For the next two days, I scanned those lists over and over again, seeking to memorize cases where it wasn’t “I before E” or whether it was Andy or Chris that spelled his last name of Cannizzaro with one Z (its Andy).

So the evening of the Bee rolls around.  I get to the ESPN Zone, sign in, get my contestant number (10) and find Jeremy (given number 6) waiting upstairs in the lounge area.  He asks me if I’ve studied.  I whip out my lists . . . he is shocked.  He starts to browse through them, and I note that he need only concern himself with the highlighted ones.  I show him the cut-and-pasted list of 30 names, most of which came from that SI photo gallery.  The first name on that list is “Tshimanga (Tim) Biakabatuka”, along with a phonetic spelling.  Jeremy remarks that its nice to have the phonetics alongside the names.  We chat about the myriad of variations of the name Darryl, from Daryl Johnston to Darryl Dawkins to Derrelle Revis.

Soon a perky young ESPN Zone assistant goes over the rules, answers some questions, and the first ten of us head downstairs to the “stage” in front of the huge video monitor board.  Immediately in front of the stage are some seemingly extremely-comfortable leather recliners.  Normally, those recliners have posteriors planted in them for bowl games, NBA, MLB, Nascar and a plethora of sporting events.  Now, they were filled with people watching adults spelling sports names.  I suddenly feel like Kermit the Frog, with Statler and Waldorf heckling from the balcony.

It is noisy, with people eating and conversing at the dining tables and booths in front of us, and especially at the bar behind the dining area.  ESPN New York radio host Seth Everett is the emcee and quizmaster for the evening.  Though I know that it requires some level of good diction and enunciation to make it as a talk show host, I’m still somewhat disappointed that Dr. Jacques Bailly, the Official Pronouncer of the Scripps Spelling Bee, couldn’t somehow be hooked up via satellite to read the words from Washington, D.C.

The first of the 27 contestants steps to the mic . . . a young lady.  Everett make some polite, friendly chatter with her, trying to entertain the audience, and then throws out the first word . . . Indianapolis running back “Joseph a-dye”.  The girl is a bit bewildered.  Jeremy and I cast a look at each other, as if to say “that’s not the easiest first round word to know”.  The girl frets a bit, then spells out “a-d-i-e … adie”.  A whistle sounds, and Everett informs her of the correct spelling.  1 down, 26 to go.

The round moves on, and it seems we have some bar patrons who want to participate and/or use the Bee as a sobriety test.  They are yelling the spelling (would that be better known as “yspelling” or “spyelling”) of the first few words, which we’ve been warned could be considered aiding a contestant.

Jeremy nails his word, and soon after I get called up . . . “former Houston Texan quarterback David Carr . . . spell CARR”.  From the bar area, some boisterous guys start yelling “C-A-R-R”.  I point to the guys and note that they aren’t part of my “posse” of $10 per person cheering section.  The judges allow me to spell “Carr”, and then an announcement is made to please refrain from shouting out answers.

At one point in the first round, the contestants have to correct the judges on their ruling that Chicago White Sox perfect game pitcher Mark does or does not in fact spell his last name BUEHRLE.   This doesn’t bode well for the rest of the event, does it? The contestant who was initially ruled out thanks us when he is given a reprieve.

The event moves on . . . and my second round word comes up . . . “New York Jets cornerback Derrelle Revis . . . spell DERRELLE.”  All of a sudden I panic . . . I have a moment not unlike Charlie Brown during “A Boy Named Charlie Brown“, when good ol’ Chuck need only spell “BEAGLE” to win the spelling bee, and he struggles while Snoopy is excitedly jumping up and down in the audience.  Charlie Brown ends up spelling it “B-E-A-G-E-L”.  I cast a look back at Jeremy as I try to remember … Darelle? …. Derrell? …. and finally … I picture the list in my mind, and remember “D-E-R-R-E-L-L-E”.  I escape that potential landmine.

I cautiously spell baseball player Frank CATALANOTTO correctly in round 3, and Jeremy and I each make it safely to round four, as do about 12 others.  Jeremy’s next name is announced . . . “Tim Biakabatuka”.   I think to myself “OK … he should get this …. I showed him the sheet” … and I spell it (silently) along with him.

Jeremy finishes spelling  BIAKABATUKA, and then . . . the whistle sounds, and Everett tells Jeremy the “correct” spelling.  Jeremy is bewildered.  I am confused.  There may just be alcoholic beverages consumed post-Bee after all.

I try and put this seeming error in my homemade study guide out of my mind, as Everett asks me to spell the last name of Wally SZCZERBIAK.  I remember that Wally’s “z-pattern” is “z-c-z”, while the Duke coach’s pattern is “z-y-z”, and safely make it to round five.

The contestants are now dropping like flies, or bees, or other winged insects that have been subjected to “Orthographic RAID”.  I get a relative lay-up (all puns intended), as I am fed Knick legend Dave DEBUSSCHERE.  I notice we are down to the last seven, and I am the lone woman left.

Round six starts, and now the names are so obscure, I can only assume that someone just plucked a handful of Scrabble tiles from a bag and randomly assembled them into a “letter string”.  I am given the name of an NBA player from the Golden State Warriors, one who I would later discover was a mere rookie this past season, Kelenna AZUBUIKE.  I can’t hear the heretofore unknown name that well, and ask for it again.  I lament being unable to ask for its origin or for it to be used in a sentence.  Damn, no one seems to be wearing a Golden State Warrior replica jersey in the crowd either.  I roll it around in my head.  I’m pretty sure it was on one of my lists, but since I can’t even link what Everett is saying to something similar to a name I might have come across, I am “spelling blind”.

“A-Z-I-B-E-Q-U-E” I meekly reply.  The whistle sounds.  Everett gives me the correct spelling.  I am knocked out in 6th place.  No prize.  No glory.  No “Chariots of Fire” music in the background.  I find Jeremy, and we watch the final rounds play out.  The defending champ wins again, but we could care less.  Jeremy is still perplexed over BIAKABATUKA, and I feel that, along with Mr. Azubuike, I must have left my dictionary in San Francisco.

We look at the line to get seated for dining at a table in the Zone, and decide to head out.  We end up at an overpriced BBQ place in the theater district.  Jeremy is still pondering the correct spelling of BIAKABATUKA, and I whip out my sheets and again show him the first name on one of them.  We slog through our dinner (no booze) and make our separate ways home, but not before we make a pact that next year, we should start studying in April.

Later that evening, I get an e-mail from Jeremy, titled “THEY WERE RIGHT”:

At least I feel better, and your study guide was wrong, it is biakabUtuka- I spelled it with an A. We still need to do the buddy system to protect ourselves and even perhaps study together…

I feel awful. I feel like I led Jeremy astray.  I go back to the source of the BIAKABATUKA spelling.  I see the spelling centered above his picture … BIAKABATUKA.  Then I read the photo caption to the right again (emphasis mine):

With the 80th Scripps National Spelling Bee concluding this week, SI.com compiled some of the toughest names of athletes to spell, beginning with former Panther running back Biakabatuka.

Pronunciation: Bee-ak-ah-bah-TOO-kah.

Used in a sentence: Biakabutuka rushed for 1,818 yards for Michigan in 1995, a single-season school record.

Good grief!  In an article detailing the hardest sports names to spell . . . there is a spelling error . . . within the same friggin’ caption!  This official speller/scorer scores that play as “E-Editor”!   I am befuddled.  If you can’t trust Sports Illustrated, who can you trust (and don’t say ESPN . . . cause their restaurant staff couldn’t spell BUEHRLE!).

Well, if Jeremy and I WERE going to study for next year’s Bee, it certainly seemed like we were going to have to decide which one of us was going to be Merriam, and which one Webster.   With no central repository for CORRECT spellings of difficult athlete names, we’d have to be the pioneers.

And that’s when it hit me . . . I could start a blog about this.  I could write about the athletes with the jumbled names from all over this sports-loving world, and along with a little biographical information, I could provide some ways of remembering how to spell their names.

So, behold . . . “Spellczechs (and others)”.  I hope you find the stories about and behind the names as interesting as I do.

Postscript:  In the week after the Bee, a news item announced that the Walt Disney Company was closing most of its ESPN Zone establishments, including the one in New York.  Perhaps Waldorf and Statler heckled the business model to its demise.


Written by dianagram

July 15, 2010 at 3:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Love it, I am adding this to (My Must Read Blog's) list


    July 15, 2010 at 7:41 pm

  2. Love the blog angle! Your personality has come out on your comments in Baseball Prospectus, so when Will Carroll posted that you had a blog, I had to czech it out. As one with the same quirky and nerdy spelling past, I just wanted to tip my hat. I’d participate in the ESPN contest, but alas, Apex, NC (“The Peak Of Good Living”) is no New York. 🙂

    John Hardman

    July 19, 2010 at 11:42 am

    • Thanks John. Glad to have you aboard!


      July 19, 2010 at 12:06 pm

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