The Origins of All 30 NBA Team Names
The Hornets were supposed to be the Spirit, while the Grizzlies were almost named the Mounties. Why is a team in Los Angeles nicknamed the Lakers, and what’s a team called the Jazz doing in Utah? As the NBA season tips off tonight, here’s the story behind the nicknames of all 30 teams.
In 1948, the cities of Moline and Rock Island, IL, and Davenport, IA—collectively known as the Tri-Cities at the time—were awarded a team in the National Basketball League. The team was nicknamed the Blackhawks, who, like Chicago’s hockey team, were named after the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk. When the team moved to Milwaukee in 1951, the nickname was shortened to Hawks. The franchise retained the shortened moniker for subsequent moves to St. Louis and finally Atlanta in 1968.
Team owner Walter Brown personally chose Celtics over Whirlwinds, Olympians, and Unicorns (yes, Unicorns) as the nickname for Boston’s Basketball Association of America team in 1946. Despite the warnings of one of his publicity staffers, who told Brown, “No team with an Irish name has ever won a damned thing in Boston,” Brown liked the winning tradition of the nickname; the New York Celtics were a successful franchise during the 1920s.
The three finalists in the name-the-team contest for Charlotte’s 2004 expansion franchise were Bobcats, Dragons, and Flight. Owner Bob Johnson was admittedly fond of the winning name—if his first name was Dragon, he might not have been so happy—while some of the league’s players were less than impressed. “It sounds like a girls’ softball team to me,” Steve Kerr told reporters. “I guess it shows there aren’t many good nicknames left to be had.” Bobcats CEO Ed Tapscott defended the decision: “I think the athleticism of the feline species plays well with the NBA concept,” he said. “Bobcats are indigenous to western North Carolina. It has not been used in a pro-sports environment. And, I guess there’s one additional connection people might talk about.” Charlotte had also considered Cougars, the nickname of Carolina’s ABA team in the 1970s.
According to the Chicago Bulls Encyclopedia, team owner Richard Klein was brainstorming nicknames for his new franchise in 1966 and wanted a name that portrayed Chicago’s status as the meat capital of the world. Klein was considering Matadors and Toreadors when his young son exclaimed, “Dad, that’s a bunch of bull!” The rest is somewhat dubious history.
Fans voted Cavaliers the team nickname in 1970 in a poll conducted by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. The other finalists included Jays, Foresters, Towers, and Presidents. The Presidents nickname was presumably an allusion to the fact that seven former U.S. Presidents were born in Ohio, second only to Virginia. Jerry Tomko, who suggested Cavaliers in the contest, wrote, “Cavaliers represent a group of daring fearless men, whose life pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.” (Tomko’s son, Brett, has been a big league pitcher since 1997.)
A Dallas radio station sponsored a name-the-team contest and recommended the finalists to team owner Donald Carter, who ultimately chose Mavericks over Wranglers and Express. The 41 fans who suggested Mavericks each won a pair of tickets to the season opener and one of those fans, Carla Springer, won a drawing for season tickets. Springer, a freelance writer, said the nickname “represents the independent, flamboyant style of the Dallas people.” That’s certainly an apt description for current team owner Mark Cuban.
Denver’s ABA team was originally known as the Rockets. When the team was preparing to move to the NBA in 1974, they needed a new nickname, as Rockets was already claimed by the franchise in Houston. Nuggets, an allusion to the city’s mining tradition and the Colorado Gold Rush during the late 1850s, was chosen via a name-the-team contest.
The Pistons trace their roots to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they were known as the Zollner Pistons. What’s a Zollner Piston? A piston manufactured by then-team owner Fred Zollner, who named the club after his personal business. When the team moved to Detroit in 1957, Zollner dropped his name from the nickname but retained Pistons. The name was fitting for the Motor City.
Golden State Warriors
The Philadelphia Warriors won the championship in the inaugural 1946-47 season of the Basketball Association of America. The Warriors moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco after the 1961-62 season and retained their nickname. When the team relocated across the Bay to Oakland in 1971, they were renamed the Golden State Warriors.
The Houston Rockets originally called San Diego home. Rockets was chosen via a name-the-team contest and was a reference to the city’s theme, “A City In Motion.” Liquid-fuel Atlas rockets were also being manufactured in San Diego. When the team moved to Houston in 1971, it made perfectly good sense to keep the name, as Houston was home to a NASA space center.
According to Michael Leo Donovan’s book on team nicknames, Yankees to Fighting Irish: What’s Behind Your Favorite Team’s Name, the Pacers’ nickname was decided upon in 1967 by the team’s original investors, including attorney Richard Tinkham. The nickname is a reference to Indiana’s rich harness and auto racing history. Pacing describes one of the main gaits for harness racing, while pace cars are used for auto races, such as the Indianapolis 500.
When the NBA’s Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego in 1978, the owners wanted to rebrand the team with a new nickname. They settled on Clippers, a popular type of ship during the 19th century. San Diego had been home to the Conquistadors and the Sails of the ABA during the 1970s. Donald Sterling bought the Clippers during the 1981-82 season and relocated them to his native Los Angeles in 1984. He lost all respect in San Diego but kept the Clippers name.
How many natural lakes are there in Los Angeles? The short answer: Less than 10,000. When a pair of investors relocated the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League to Minneapolis before the 1947 season, they sought a name that would ring true with the team’s new home. Given that Minnesota is “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” they settled on Lakers. When the Lakers moved to Los Angeles before the 1960 season, their nickname was retained, in part because of the tradition the team had established in Minnesota.
When Vancouver was awarded an expansion franchise in 1994 to begin play the following season, the team’s owners had tentative plans to name the team the Mounties. The Royal Mounted Canadian Police and fans alike objected, so team officials resumed their search for a name. The local newspaper sponsored a name-the-team contest, which club officials monitored before choosing Grizzlies, an indigenous species to the area, over Ravens. When the team relocated to Memphis before the 2002-03 season, FedEx was prepared to offer the Grizzlies $120 million to rename the team the Express, but the NBA rejected the proposal.
In October 1986, the owners of Miami’s expansion franchise selected Stephanie Freed’s Heat submission from more than 20,000 entries, which also included Sharks, Tornadoes, Beaches, and Barracudas.
Given the hunting tradition in Wisconsin, it’s no surprise that Bucks was the leading vote-getter in the team’s name-the-team contest in 1968. For an animal, fans could’ve chosen much worse: Skunks was among the other entries.
The ownership group for Minnesota’s prospective franchise chose Timberwolves through a name-the-team contest in 1986. The nickname beat out Polars by a 2-1 margin in the final vote, which was conducted in 333 of the state’s 842 city councils. Tim Pope, who was one of the first fans to nominate Timberwolves, won a trip to the NBA All-Star Game. Pope submitted 10 nicknames in all, including Gun Flints. “I thought a two-word name would win,” he told a reporter. The most popular entry in the contest was Blizzard, but the team wanted a nickname that was more unique to its home state. “Minnesota is the only state in the lower 48 with free-roaming packs of timber wolves,” a team official said.
New Jersey Nets
The New Jersey Americans joined the American Basketball Association in 1967 and moved to New York the following season. The team was renamed the New York Nets, which conveniently rhymed with Jets and Mets, two of the Big Apple’s other professional franchises. Before the 1977-78 season, the team returned to New Jersey but kept its nickname. In 1994, the Nets were reportedly considering changing their nickname to the Swamp Dragons or Fire Dragons to boost its marketing efforts.
New Orleans Hornets
Most NBA fans know that the New Orleans Hornets originated in Charlotte and have also spent some time in Oklahoma City. Fewer people know that the Hornets were originally going to be called the Spirit. When George Shinn and his ownership group announced that Spirit would be the nickname of Charlotte’s prospective expansion franchise in 1987, the fans voiced their displeasure. It didn’t help that some fans associated the nickname with the PTL Club, a Charlotte-based evangelical Christian television program that was the subject of an investigative report by the Charlotte Observer for its fraudulent fundraising activities. Shinn decided to sponsor another name-the-team contest and had fans vote on six finalists. More than 9,000 ballots were cast and Hornets won by a landslide, beating out Knights, Cougars, Spirit, Crowns, and Stars. Afterwards, Shinn noted that the nickname had some historical significance; during the Revolutionary War, a British commander reportedly referred to the area around Charlotte as a nest of hornets.
New York Knicks
The term “Knickerbockers” referred specifically to pants rolled up just below the knee by Dutch settlers in the New World during the 1600s. Many of these settlers found homes in and around New York City, where a cartoon drawing of Father Knickerbocker became a prominent symbol of the city. In 1845, baseball’s first organized team was nicknamed the Knickerbocker Nine and the name was evoked again in 1946 when New York was granted a franchise in the Basketball Association of America. Team founder Ned Irish reportedly made the decision to call the team the Knickerbockers.
Oklahoma City Thunder
When the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season, fans voted on potential nicknames from an original list of 64 possibilities. Thunder was chosen over Renegades, Twisters, and Barons, and the name was extremely well received. The team set sales records for the first day after the nickname was revealed. “There’s just all kinds of good thunder images and thoughts, and the in-game experience of Thunder,” team chairman Clay Bennett told reporters. The SuperSonics had been named for an airplane called the SuperSonic Transport. The plane was to be built by Boeing, which had a large plant in the Seattle area.
When the Orlando Sentinel sponsored a name-the-team contest for Orlando’s prospective expansion franchise, Challengers—an allusion to the space shuttle that crashed in 1986—was the most popular suggestion. Other entries included Floridians, Juice, Orbits, Astronauts, Aquamen, and Sentinels, but the panel of judges, including Orlando team officials who reviewed the suggestions, decided to go with Magic. The name is an obvious nod to the tourism-rich city’s main attraction, Disney World.
The Syracuse Nationals were relocated to the City of Brotherly Love in 1963 and the team was renamed the 76ers, an allusion to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776.
General manager Jerry Colangelo, only 28 at the time, settled on a name for his expansion franchise using a name-the-team contest in 1968. Colangelo chose Suns over Scorpions, Rattlers, and Thunderbirds, among the other suggestions included in the 28,000 entries. One lucky fan won $1,000 and season tickets as part of the contest, which included such obscure entries as White Wing Doves, Sun Lovers, Poobahs, Dudes, and Cactus Giants.
Portland Trail Blazers
In 1970, Portland was granted an expansion franchise in the NBA and team officials announced a name-the-team contest. Of the more than 10,000 entries, Pioneers was the most popular, but was ruled out because nearby Lewis & Clark College was already using the nickname. Another popular entry was Trail Blazers, whose logo is supposed to represent five players on one team playing against five players from another team.
The Kings’ royal lineage stretches all the way back to the founding of the National Basketball League’s Rochester Royals in 1945. The Royals retained their nickname after a move to Cincinnati in 1957 and became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings through a name-the-team contest in 1972. The name remained unchanged when the franchise relocated to California in 1985.
San Antonio Spurs
A group of San Antonio investors purchased the Dallas Chaparrals from the American Basketball Association in 1973 and promptly changed the team name to the San Antonio Gunslingers. Before the Gunslingers played their first game in their new home, the ownership group renamed the team the Spurs. Some accounts indicate that the name was voted upon in a name-the-team contest. It may have just been a coincidence that one of the team’s main investors, Red McCombs, was born in Spur, Texas.
The ownership group of Toronto’s prospective expansion team conducted extensive marketing research across Canada in 1994 and held a nationwide vote that helped team officials come up with a list of potential nicknames. Raptors, which Jurassic Park helped popularize the year before, was eventually chosen over runners-up Bobcats and Dragons.
No, Utah isn’t known for its Jazz. The team originated in New Orleans in 1974 and club officials decided to keep the name after relocating to Salt Lake City in 1979. The Jazz nickname was originally chosen through a name-the-team contest, which produced seven other finalists: Dukes, Crescents, Pilots, Cajuns, Blues, Deltas, and Knights. Deltas would’ve translated to Salt Lake City rather well (the airline of the same name has a hub there), while Cajuns may have been even worse than Jazz.
In the early 1990s, Washington owner Abe Pollin was becoming frustrated with the association of his team’s nickname and gun violence. After Pollin’s friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, Pollin decided to take action and announced his plans to rename the team. A name-the-team contest was held and fans voted on a list of finalists that included Wizards, Dragons, Express, Stallions, and Sea Dogs. Not long after Wizards was announced as the winning name before the 1997-98 season, the local NAACP chapter president complained that the nickname carried Ku Klux Klan associations. Previous nicknames for the franchise include Packers and Zephyrs.
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