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The Origin Stories of Every NBA Team's Name

Luke PetkacFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2013

The Origin Stories of Every NBA Team's Name

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    The announcement that the New Orleans Hornets would be changing their name to the Pelicans shocked the NBA world a few weeks ago. However, it also shed a little light on some interesting NBA history and how each team got its name.

    Most NBA teams have pretty fascinating origin stories surrounding their names, whether it has something to do with the surrounding region, has a lot of historical precedent or was chosen by the fans.

    Whatever the case, the story is almost always interesting and sometimes even a little crazy.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Way back in 1946, the National Basketball League (NBL) awarded a franchise to three cities—Moline and Rock Island, IL and Davenport, IA—known as the Tri-Cities. That team was nicknamed the Blackhawks after Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk (per Scott Allen of Mentalfloss.com)

    After joining the NBA in 1949, the Blackhawks jumped to Milwaukee in 1951 (where the name was shortened to the Hawks) and to St. Louis in 1955, finally settling down in Atlanta in 1968. Despite all of the movement, the name stayed relatively the same.

Boston Celtics

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    Boston's franchise name was actually a personal pick of team owner Walter Brown in 1946.

    Brown was contemplating several different nicknames, including the Olympians, the Whirlwinds and the Unicorns. And yes, you did read that right. The Unicorns.

    Ultimately, Brown decided to go with the Boston Celtics, saying (per NBA.com), "The name has a great basketball tradition from the old Original Celtics in New York (1914-1939). And Boston is full of Irishmen."

    Let's be honest, Brown botched this one badly. The Boston Unicorns would have been world-beaters.

Brooklyn Nets

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    The New Jersey Americans were one of the original members of the ABA in 1967.

    The very next year, the team moved to New York and renamed itself the New York Nets, after—you guessed it—a basketball net (per NBA.com). Which is much better than, say, the Swamp Dragons.

    The team has moved twice since—back to New Jersey in 1977 and to Brooklyn this year—but have always kept the Nets name.

Charlotte Bobcats

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    Charlotte's new franchise name was generated via a name-the-team contest in 2004, in which Bobcats won out over fellow finalists Dragons and Flight (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen).

    The choice was met with fairly negative reactions, though team owner Bob Johnson was supportive of the choice (leading to rumors he actually named the team after himself).

Chicago Bulls

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    Chicago had a strong meatpacking tradition back in 1966, and team owner Richard Klein was kicking around names like the Matadors or Toreadors for his new franchise.

    When he approached his family with his ideas for the team name, his little son Mark said (per NBA.com), “Dad, that's a bunch of bull!” Of course, Klein decided to take the Bulls name and run with it, and the rest is ancient history.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    In 1970, Cleveland held a contest to determine their team name, settling on Cavaliers, Jays, Foresters, Towers and Presidents as the five finalists. Cavaliers eventually won the vote, and they've been playing under that name ever since.

    The man who ultimately won the contest, Jerry Tomko, wrote (per NBA.com) that the name would "represent a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds."

Dallas Mavericks

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    The NBA voted to give Dallas a new NBA franchise in 1980, and yet another name-the-team contest was born. Thousands of entries were eventually whittled down to three—the Mavericks, the Wranglers and the Express (per NBA.com).

    Owner Donald Carter (obviously) settled on the Mavericks as his choice, and a new team was born.

Denver Nuggets

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    Denver was originally home to an ABA franchise—the Denver Rockets.

    However, the NBA already had a franchise named the Rockets, so when Denver sought entry into the NBA, they were forced to rename their club, with the choice ultimately being the Denver Nuggets.

    Nuggets refers to the gold rush that Colorado experienced back in the mid-1800s, where people from all across the country traveled there hoping to make their fortune finding nuggets of silver and gold (per NBA.com).

Detroit Pistons

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    Detroit's team—an NBL team—was originally founded in Fort Wayne, Ind. and was known as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons after owner Frank Zoller. Zoller owned a factory that manufactured pistons for various engines, thus the Pistons name (per NBA.com).

    When Zoller moved the team to the Motor City in 1957, the name stuck, and the city of Detroit has been rooting for the Pistons ever since.

Golden State Warriors

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    When Philadelphia was first awarded an NBA franchise in 1946, it was called the Warriors, the name of Philadelphia's old American Basketball League team.

    The nickname survived the franchise's move to San Francisco in 1962, and when the team once again relocated in 1971—this time to Oakland—they were dubbed the Golden State Warriors, reflecting a team that belonged to all of California (per NBA.com).

Houston Rockets

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    The Rockets name was actually first given to a San Diego team back in 1967. Fans were asked to pick a name for San Diego's squad and chose the Rockets because the space industry was enormous in San Diego at the time (per NBA.com).

    When the Rockets relocated to Houston in 1971, they simply kept the name (which fits because of a NASA space center located in Houston), and we've been calling them the Houston Rockets ever since.

Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers franchise, founded in 1967, was actually originally an ABA franchise. The name Pacers was decided by the team's original group of investors.

    According to attorney Richard D. Tinkham (a member of the original investing group), the name was chosen because of Indiana's history with harness racing pacers, as well as the pace car used during the Indianapolis 500 (per NBA.com).

Los Angeles Clippers

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    When the Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego in 1978 (after San Diego had lost its Rockets franchise), team officials were determined to change the team's name, feeling that it didn't quite fit with its new city.

    A name-the-team contest was held soon after, and Clippers was the eventual winner. The name was chosen because San Diego was home to a lot of large sailing ships years ago, many of which were coined “clippers" (per NBA.com).

    The franchise relocated to Los Angeles in 1984 and opted to keep the Clippers name.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    This name makes absolutely no sense for a Los Angeles team, it's true. However, it used to fit the Lakers' old hometown, Minneapolis.

    Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” so when Minneapolis was granted an NBL franchise in 1947, the nickname Lakers made perfect sense. When they moved to Los Angeles in 1960, not so much.

    However, there was strong tradition behind the name and franchise, so the name was retained even after relocation (per NBA.com).

Memphis Grizzlies

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    This is another “name made much more sense before relocation” type of situation.

    When Vancouver was given a franchise in 1994, the team owners wanted a name symbolic of the region. After striking out with their first choice—the Mounties (thank goodness that didn't stick)—a name-the-team contest led to the name Grizzlies.

    The team relocated to Memphis before the 2002-03 season, and the franchise seriously considered changing to a name that better reflected its new hometown. However, fans were vocal in their support of the Grizzlies nickname, and no change was ever made (per NBA.com).

Miami Heat

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    Miami was awarded an NBA franchise in 1988, and a name-the-team contest was quickly put in place (you're probably beginning to sense a theme here).

    Thousands of entries poured in, including names like the Beaches, the Floridians and the Suntan. However, Heat was considered the best of the bunch and now emblazons the Miami jerseys (per NBA.com).

    Even if Suntan was the obvious choice.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    The city of Milwaukee had a name-the-team contest in 1968, and of the 10,000-plus entries, Bucks was chosen as the team's name moving forward.

    Team officials felt that out of all the entries, Bucks most closely reflected the fish-and-game mentality of the region (per NBA.com). As animals go, Bucks is a pretty decent team name. You could definitely do worse.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Minnesota's new franchise was named, to no one's surprise, by a name-the-team contest back in 1986.

    The two most popular vote-getters in the contest were Timberwolves and Polars. The choice was left to the state's city councils, who ultimately chose the Timberwolves (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen).

    Amazingly enough, the list of suggested nicknames for the team is available online. Definitely recommend checking it out. It's good for a laugh or two (special shout-outs to the “Potpourri” and “Pull Out The Dictionary” sections).

New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans

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    Charlotte's 1987 expansion franchise was actually almost called the Spirit, but fans voiced such displeasure that the ownership group decided instead to institute a name-the-team contest.

    Thousands of ballots were cast, and the Hornets won out over other names like the Knights, Cougars, Crowns and Stars (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen). And the name survived the move to New Orleans right up until a few weeks ago, when the franchise's new owner, Tom Benson, declared the team will be changing its name to the New Orleans Pelicans starting next season.

    He said (per NBA.com):

    When we purchased the basketball team, it was a priority to change the name to reflect our culture, our community and our resolve. The Pelican does that. Our region has been hard hit in recent years and the one thing that stands out is the resiliency and determination to comeback, to fight and overcome. The Pelican symbolizes that.

New York Knicks

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    The founder of the New York Knicks, Ned Irish, is said to have made the decision to call his team the Knickerbockers (shortened to Knicks) back in 1946, when New York was given a franchise in the Basketball Association of America (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen).

    The term knickerbocker was a name given to Dutch settlers who came to the New World. Many of these settlers came to New York, so there's a lot of historical meaning behind the name and the region.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    When the Seattle Supersonics were moved to Oklahoma City following the 2007-08 season, fans voted on the team's new name from a set list of possibilities. The name Thunder was chosen over others like the Bison, Wind, Energy, Marshalls and Barons (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen).

    The Thunder name has been pretty well received, and since Oklahoma experiences vicious thunderstorms every year, it makes sense for the region as well.

Orlando Magic

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    Orlando actually held its name-the-team contest in 1986, months before it was even awarded a franchise!

    After thousands of prospective names were entered into the contest, four emerged as finalists—the Heat (not taken at the time), Tropics, Juice and Magic (per NBA.com).

    All are pretty obvious nods to the area, but for various reasons, Heat, Tropics and Juice were all eliminated, leaving the Magic as the final choice for the franchise.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    When the Syracuse Nationals relocated to Philadelphia in 1963, the team was in need of a new name.

    The name (more like number, really) 76ers was chosen to reference the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which happened in the city of Philadelphia (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen).

Phoenix Suns

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    A name-the-team was instituted for Phoenix's expansion franchise in 1968, with Suns, Scorpions, Rattlers and Thunderbirds emerging as the best potential name (real desert feel in Phoenix, apparently).

    General manager Jerry Colangelo—just 28 years old at the time—chose the Suns, and that was that. A list of a few of the other potential names was posted on NBA.com, and there are some real gems there. Though, strangely enough, no one suggested the Phoenix Phoenixes. Their loss.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Portland was granted an expansion franchise in 1970, and a name-the-team contest was announced quickly after (seriously, how hard is it to just name the team yourself?).

    Funnily enough, the name Pioneers was actually selected as the most popular, but it was already taken as the name of a local college team. The name Trail Blazers was also popular and reflected the same pioneering spirit, so it ultimately ended up being the team's choice (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen).

Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings were originally the NBL's Rochester Royals.

    The Royals kept their name when they moved to Cincinnati in 1957, but had to change it when they moved to Kansas City and Omaha in 1972 (Kansas City had a baseball team called the Royals).

    They kept the royalty theme going when their name-the-team contest resulted in the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, and when the team relocated to Sacramento in 1985, the name remained (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen).

    On a separate note, it's sad to see the Kings leaving Sacramento. They have a great fanbase and got robbed of at least one title in the early '00s. Hate to see this kind of stuff happen.

San Antonio Spurs

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    San Antonio's eventual NBA team was the Dallas Chaparrals, an ABA team that relocated to San Antonio in 1973.

    The Chaparrals quickly became the San Antonio Gunslingers, and it looked like that would be the name of the franchise moving forward. However, before the Gunslingers played a game, the team's ownership group started a name-the-team contest, from which the name Spurs was selected (per Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen).

Seattle SuperSonics

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    Seattle's NBA franchise, which entered the league in 1967, needed a nickname, and ownership turned to the fans for help.

    The fans chose the name SuperSonics, which was inspired by a plane—the Supersonic Transport—that Boeing was working on in the Seattle area (per NBA.com). The idea behind the plane never came to anything, but it did help to determine the Seattle team's nickname. And really, isn't that more important?

Toronto Raptors

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    When Toronto was granted an expansion franchise in 1993, the city immediately polled fans across the nation to determine what the team's new name would be.

    The final list of possibilities was filled with animal names (per NBA.com)—Beavers, Bobcats, Dragons, Hogs, etc.—but of them all, Raptors (fueled, according to Mentalfloss.com's Scott Allen, by the success of the movie Jurassic Park) was chosen as the best.

Utah Jazz

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    The Utah Jazz only makes sense as a name if you consider the team's history.

    The franchise was originally a 1974 expansion team in New Orleans, where the name Jazz very much makes sense.

    However, after the New Orleans Jazz posted the worst record in the league during the 1978-79 season, the team's ownership group decided to relocate the team to Salt Lake City. They also decided to keep the Jazz name, despite the fact that jazz's connection to Utah isn't readily apparent (per NBA.com).

    Anyone up for a Jazz-for-Pelicans name swap?

Washington Wizards

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    Honestly, there's not too much to say about this one. The Bullets nickname was around for quite a while. In 1946, Baltimore's franchise was named the Bullets, and Washington's team took the name from 1963 to 1996—over 30 years.

    However, team owner Abe Pollin felt that the name promoted too much of a violent image and, in 1996, decided to rename the team the Wizards (per NBA.com).

    Downgrade? Maybe. But the new Wizards logo does look better than the old Bullets one ever did, so that's definitely a plus.

    (Note: Please understand and appreciate how hard it was not to work a Gilbert Arenas joke in here at some point.)

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