How Did I Get Here? A History of Franchise Movement In The NBA
The Supersonics were the most recent team to pull off a major relocation when they packed their backs for Oklahoma City to become the Thunder in 2009.
After 41 years of basketball in Seattle, the outpouring of anger directed at team owner Clay Bennett was substantial, but they were hardly the first team to make such a move. In fact, the Sonics/Thunder were the 13th NBA team to change zip codes at least once in their history.
With the chances that the Kings could leave Sacramento growing by the month, I thought it a good time to look back at the history of NBA relocation.
While some teams, like the Thunder, chose to create a whole new identity when they moved, other teams retained the nicknames from their previous city resulting in some of those team names that just make no sense. Two perfect examples are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz.
These slides are concerned only with NBA teams, so you won't find the Dallas Chaparrals (San Antonio Spurs) on this list. Nor will you find the New York Nets, since they played just one season in New York before moving a few miles south to New Jersey.
I hope you enjoy.
The Philadelphia 76ers started their NBA life as the Syracuse Nationals in 1950.
Led by the great Dolph Shayes, the Nats were quite successful on the court, winning the 1955 NBA Championship and reaching the NBA Finals on two other occasions.
Off the court was a different story.
By the early-60s, Syracuse was the last remaining mid-size city in the league, and it proved to be too small to profitably house an NBA team.
The team was sold after the 1963 season, and moved to Philadelphia to replace the recently departed Warriors franchise. The team was renamed the 76ers, an obvious and logical reference to the city's colonial history.
The name "Rockets" goes so naturally with Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center, that you'd think that the team had always been there.
Actually, the team played its first four years in San Diego, before moving to Houston in 1972.
The name "Rockets" worked in San Diego, too. General Dynamics was producing the Atlas rocket there at the time.
Interestingly, the San Diego Rockets first ever draft pick was an under-performing guard out of Kentucky named Pat Riley.
Despite some talented players, the team stank it up on the floor and in the attendance numbers. The Rockets were sold to a Texas-based consortium and moved to Houston.
The Rockets became the first of three NBA teams in Texas.
The Golden State Warriors originally called Philadelphia home before moving the West coast in 1963.
The Philadephia Warriors were one of the original members of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), and won the league's championship for its inaugural season in 1947. The BAA would merge with the National Basketball League in 1949 and rename itself the National Basketball Association.
The Warriors won the NBA championship in 1956, and later drafted a promising looking kid named Wilt Chamberlain in 1959.
Despite Chamberlain's otherworldly performances, consistent team success, and residing in a great sports town like Philly, the Warriors were sold to a San Francisco-based businessman in 1963.
The team retained their name—I suppose you can have warriors anywhere—and became known as the San Francisco Warriors.
In 1972, the team moved across the bay to Oakland, and changed their name again—this time to the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors have the distinction of being the only team in the league without their home city or state as part of their name.
The Los Angeles Clippers started life back in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves.
The Braves struggled for their first few years, typical of expansion teams, but strung together three solid seasons in the mid-70s.
Their last two years in Buffalo were plagued by poor play, poor attendance, and an owner who wanted nothing more than to be out of Buffalo.
The team was sold in 1978 to a California businessman who wanted to bring the team back to his native state.
The Braves were settled in San Diego and renamed the Clippers after the iconic ships that became identified with San Diego during the California Gold Rush.
After six largely forgettable seasons (under .500 in five of the six seasons), the Clippers were moved by their new owner, Donald Sterling, to L.A in 1984.
"Clippers" makes just slightly more sense in Los Angeles than "Lakers."
The Jazz franchise began in New Orleans in 1974.
Despite an absolutely perfect nickname—what says New Orleans more than "jazz"—and an electrifying scoring machine in Pete Maravich, the Jazz were pretty much doomed from the start.
The team traded for local legend Maravich in their first season, but the price required to obtain him from the Hawks (two first-round picks, three second-round picks, and one third-round pick over a three-year period) crippled the team for years.
Combine that with Maravich only playing for 3 seasons before knee injuries greatly reduced his impact, and constant venue issues that hampered attendance, and the Jazz were ripe for a move.
The team was moved to Salt Lake City in 1979, absurdly keeping the Jazz name and Mardi Gras color scheme (green, purple, and gold).
Not connected to the move, but still silly, the Jazz have since changed their colors and logo to a blue and white mountain motif. While the mountain thing is a natural fit for Utah, having the word "jazz" in the foreground of the mountains pictured in the logo is just funny.
The Washington Wizards began their NBA life as the Chicago Packers in 1961. The name "Packers" wasn't working for them (the team went 18-62), they changed the name to the Zephyrs in their second season. That didn't work out too well either, as the team finished the 1962-63 season 25-55.
In 1964, the Zephyrs packed up and moved to Baltimore to become the Bullets. The team was named after the Bata Bullet athletic shoes that were produced nearby.
The team moved to Landover, Maryland in 1973 and began calling themselves the Capital Bullets, before switching to the Washington Bullets a year later.
Team owner Abe Pollin changed the name of the team to the Wizards in 1997. The name was the winner of a contest that had fans choosing between Dragons, Sea Dogs, Express, Stallions, or Wizards. As silly as "wizards" is for an NBA team, at least it's better than the Washington Dragons.
The Grizzlies started off as an expansion team in 1995 as part of the Canada experiment. The Grizzlies were in Vancouver, and the Raptors were in Toronto.
The Vancouver Grizzlies were exceptionally bad for all six seasons in British Columbia, but the team had a solid fan base, at least in the beginning.
Unfortunately for the Grizz, the NBA had a lockout just two years into their history. Attendance-wise, the Grizzlies never recovered.
Michael Heisley purchased the team in 2000, naturally promising to keep the team in Vancouver. Behind the scenes, however, Heisley was fighting with Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn to see who could move their team to Memphis.
Heisley won, and the team began playing as the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001.
No, there are no grizzly bears in Tennessee. There is evidence that there were a few grizzlies that far east soon after the glaciers melted away from North America, but none really since then.
Could they not have changed the name to the "blues" or something?
The Hornets began play as the Charlotte Hornets back in 1988.
Charlotte, a rapidly growing city at the time, and a great sports town, fell in love with the Hornets right away.
The Hornets, led by Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, became very respectable pretty quickly for an expansion team. Charlotte not only made the playoffs in 1992-93, they also won their first-round playoff series against a team that I'd rather not name.
All was not well, however. George Shinn was doing everything he could to antagonize the city of Charlotte and earn the "worst owner in the NBA" award.
Attendance fell, despite continued relevance on the hardwood, largely as a protest against Shinn.
Shinn, naturally, did the classic "take my ball and go home" move by moving the team to New Orleans in 2002.
While not obvious, "Hornets" actually made sense for the team in Charlotte. Locals are quite proud of their revolutionary legacy, and selected Hornets in a name-the-team contest. "Hornets" comes from a quote by British general Lord Cornwallis during the British occupation of Charlotte where he referred to the city as "a veritable nest of hornets."
I can find no reason that a team in New Orleans should be called the Hornets other than laziness on the part of George Shinn.
Pistons, Detroit—the two words go together so perfectly, you'd think they were made for each other.
Well, that's obviously not the case, or they probably wouldn't be on this list.
The Pistons actually started off in Fort Wayne in 1941 as the Zollner Pistons. Fred Zollner had a foundry that made what? Yes, pistons.
Zollner was actually a pretty important figure in NBA history. The deal that merged the NBL and BAA to create the NBA was hammered out at his kitchen table. I do not know what food and beverages were served, if any.
Despite good success on the floor and a strong, albeit small, local following, Zollner moved the Pistons to the much larger city of Detroit in 1957. Given the dominance of the auto industry in Detroit, it made sense to Zollner to keep the Pistons name.
Works for me, too.
The Lakers franchise began in Detroit, Michigan in 1946. The team was originally named the Detroit Gems, but they were moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1947.
Borrowing from the state's nickname "Land of 10,000 Lakes," the team was renamed the Lakers.
Led by the dominant George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers won four of the first five NBA titles. Mikan retired following the 1954 season having just completed the NBA's first "three-peat." The team struggled for the most of the rest of their years in Minnesota.
In 1960, the team drafted Jerry West, then moved to Los Angeles to become the league's first team in California.
L.A. is not, in any way, known for its lakes, but I suppose the owner wanted to capitalize on the team's championship legacy in Minnesota. Can't fault him for that, I suppose.
The team has gone on to achieve some success since the move to L.A. I hear that they are popular with celebrities.
The Oklahoma City Thunder began play as the Seattle SuperSonics in 1967.
An extremely popular team with a long history that includes conference championships in 1978, 1979, and 1996, and an NBA championship in 1979, the Sonics were killed by Starbucks in 2006.
Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks, got tired of holding his hand out to public officials to get funds to update KeyArena, and sold the team to a Clay Bennett, and Oklahoma City businessman.
Apparently, Schultz believed that Bennett would not take the Sonics away from Seattle, at least not any time soon.
Bennett had other plans.
Skipping the "update our arena" plan altogether, he insisted upon $500 million for an entirely new arena. When that request was predictably refused, Bennett announced that he would be moving the team to OKC as soon as he could break his lease with Seattle.
The team was moved to OKC for the 2008-09 season, and was renamed the Thunder.
I've never been to Oklahoma, but my guess is that they have a lot of thunderstorms.
The Kings have packed their bags quite a bit.
The franchise began in 1945 as the Rochester Royals, winners of the 1951 NBA championship. A lot of the profitability for pro teams in the 40s came from playing exhibition games. Once the Royals joined the NBA in 1949-50, the demands of the NBA schedule put a severe crimp in their ability to make a profit.
Despite solid performances on the court and solid attendance figures, the team was losing money.
The Royals moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1957 and enjoyed some success led by local heroes Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas. The Royals played in the Eastern Conference though, so no matter how well they played, they would inevitably run into the Boston Celtics. Bottom line? No championships in Cincy.
For reasons unknown, Royals coach Bob Cousy (yes, that Cousy) traded away Lucas in 1969 and Robertson in 1970. Predictably, the Royals on-court performance took a nose-dive, and attendance followed.
In 1972, the Royals moved to Kansas City. Given the presence of a baseball team of the same name already present in KC, the basketball Royals adopted the nickname "Kings" for the first time.
The Kings had some really good teams in the late-70s/early-80s, even reaching the Western Conference Finals in 1981.
Then, the roof fell in—literally. The roof of Kemper Arena fell during a severe storm in 1980 (I remember seeing that on the news). The team was sold to a group from Sacramento in the same year.
The Kings muddled along in KC for another four years before finally moving to Sacramento in 1985.
The writing is already on the wall for the Kings to move again. The odds are tilted strongly toward a move. It might just be a matter of when and where.
The Hawks moved early and often.
The franchise began NBA life as the Tri-Cites (Illinois) Blackhawks in 1949 with the legendary Red Auerbach as their head coach. Red left after just one year, and the Blackhawks weren't far behind him.
The team moved to Milwaukee in 1951 as the Hawks. Despite the presence of Hall of Famer Bob Pettit, the Milwaukee Hawks were awful, and the team moved again, this time to St. Louis.
The St. Louis Hawks were actually very good, reaching the finals in 1957 and securing the championship in 1958. The Hawks remained a good team throughout the 60s, teaming Pettit up with Lenny Wilkens to form a very dynamic duo.
Arena issues doomed the St. Louis Hawks, as they do most teams. Their home arena was small and decrepit. The owner asks for a new building, the city says no, the team is sold to out-of-towners. Happens all the time.
The new owners happened to be from Atlanta. No small coincidence that this successful and popular team was relocated to that exact city.
The Atlanta Hawks have yet to duplicate the success of their St. Louis ancestors.
And so concludes our look back at the franchise movement in the NBA. Thirteen teams have moved a total of 32 times. These moves are a constant reminder that sports teams are, first and foremost, businesses. The owners need butts in seats, and they need those seats to be new and comfortable—preferably with abundant luxury boxes.
There will certainly be more moves. They only questions are who, when, and where.