NBA Team Nicknames, the Good,
the Bad, the Ugly
Back in the day as some are apt to say, I
was interviewing and writing Red on Red. It was the autobiography of the
legendary coach of the New York Knickerbockers Red Holzman. He is
still the only coach to ever win an NBA title with the Knicks, in fact
he won two.
Red was a walking history book when it
came to pro basketball. He was especially informed about league trivia.
He also knew had to spin a tale.
Before his days as Knick coach, Holzman
plied his trade as a pretty good scout for the team. "I was scouting a
kid from Czechoslovakia," Red said. "We decided to give him a vision
test. I got hold of an eye chart and told the kid, 'All right. Let's
hear you read the bottom line.' "'Read the bottom line?' he asked, 'I
But back to the subject at hand - -NBA
There are all kinds of team names and
nicknames in the world of the National Basketball Association, and even
more interesting explanations of how these came to be. And although some
clubs have moved from city to city, they kept the original nicknames
they began with which makes for some odd combinations.
The Knicks and the Celtics are the only teams still playing in the NBA
in their original cities. The name Knickerbockers dates back to when New
York was New Amsterdam, and the city's Dutch settlers wore trousers
bunched up at the knee known as "knickers." The name Celtics was given
to Boston in 1946 by Walter Brown, the founder of the franchise.
"We'll call them the Boston Celtics," he
said. "The name has a great basketball tradition, especially when you
think of the original 'Celtics' team. Boston is full of Irishmen; so
we'll put the players in green uniforms and call them the Boston Celtics
after their Celtic ancestors."
The Atlanta Hawks were once the St. Louis
Hawks, and before that they were the Milwaukee Hawks. Even before that
in 1948, they were the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. The three cities referred
to Moline, Illinois; Rock Island, Illinois; and Davenport, Iowa. Way
back in 1831, the Blackhawk War was fought in that tri-cities area, and
that's how the original Blackhawk's nickname, later shortened to Hawks,
came to be.
The Rochester Royals played in the NBA
for nine seasons and then transferred to Cincinnati. The name Royals was
kept. In 1972, the franchise moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and the
name was dropped to avoid confusion in the Kansas City area as the
Kansas City and the Omaha baseball teams both used the name Royals. The
new name for the NBA basketball franchise became the Kansas City-Omaha
Kings and, in 1975, simply the Kansas City Kings. A decade later, when
the team moved to California, they became the Sacramento Kings.
Not many people realize that the Denver
Nuggets were charter members of the NBA. But that team only lasted one
season. When the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association
came into the NBA, they had to change their name because the Houston
Rockets already existed. So the Denver franchise took the "Nuggets" name
of the original franchise, which was appropriate for an area with a
history of gold and silver mining of nuggets.
Charlotte, Miami, Minnesota and Orlando
are among the newer teams in the NBA. All have interesting "name"
stories. Originally, the Charlotte team was named the Spirit, but that
didn't go over too well. It was soon dropped, and a contest was launched
among fans to come up with a new name. Runner-up names included: the
Charlotte Gold, the Charlotte Knights, and incredibly the original name
- the Charlotte Spirit.
As every NBA fan knows; the winner was
the Charlotte Hornets. Miami also held a name-the-team contest and
received more than 5,000 entries. Some of the names that didn't make it
included such choices as Palm Trees, Beaches, Suntan, and Shade.
Heat beat them all out. As one clever
official explained, "When you think of Miami, heat is what comes to
Over 6,000 entries were submitted for the
Minnesota team name. The choice came down to Timberwolves vs. Polars.
Timberwolves easily won. That animal is native to Minnesota, and no
other professional sports team ever thought to use the name.
The "Orlando Sentinel" sponsored a
name-the-team contest in that Florida city. As with Minnesota, the
competition came down to two names: Magic and Juice. Orlando general
manager Pat Williams explained why Magic won out: "Magic is synonymous
with the Orlando area. We have the Magic Kingdom in Disneyworld, and the
tourism slogan here is 'Come to the Magic.'"
Some claim that the Chicago Bulls got
their name from stockyards in that windy city. It was actually the
franchise's first owner Richard Klein who came up with name in 1966. The
rookie mogul liked "bulls" because of their power and toughnees. And his
wish was to have team sporting those ahaving a team that had that
The Pistons came into being early on in
NBA history - back in 1948. They were known then as the Ft. Wayne
Zollner Pistons. It was a case of an owner naming a team for himself and
the business that he ran. Fred Zollner owned a huge piston-manufacturing
company. In 1957, the team moved to Detroit, and Pistons moved right
along with it.
Way back in 1925, there was a
Philadelphia Warriors team in the American Basketball League. In 1946,
when Philadelphia joined the NBA, it took its nickname from that old
team. Many years and many miles later, the Golden State Warriors are a
descendant of the old Philadelphia Warriors. They've gone through a
couple of geographical shifts. Philly became the San Francisco Warriors,
San Francisco became the Oakland Warriors and Oakland became the Golden
A few years back a newspaper guy came up
with the idea of teams trading names. The suggestion had some merit, but
it was no dice. What the guys thought was that the Utah Jazz become the
Utah Lakers and the Los Angeles Lakers become the Los Angeles Jazz.
Actually, both Utah and Los Angeles have
names from cities both franchises vacated. Utah came into being in 1979,
when the New Orleans Jazz moved there. That New Orleans basketball team
is only a memory, but the Utah Jazz kept their name and team colors. The
Minneapolis Lakers made the move to L.A. before the 1960 season and took
with it its nickname that comes from the state of Minnesota's motto:
"the land of 10,000 lakes". There aren't many lakes in L.A. or that much
jazz in Salt Lake City - so maybe that newspaper guy had a good idea
Here's how the three Texas NBA teams got
their names. The Houston Rockets were once the San Diego Rockets. The
name has worked well for both franchises - linked to space programs and
industries. The San Antonio Spurs got their short name in a public
naming contest - a name that makes you think of Texas, and the same is
true of the Dallas Mavericks who came into being in 1980. A Dallas radio
station sorted out many suggested names in a "name-the-team" contest and
picked Mavericks thinking it had Texas flavor.
In 1963, the old Syracuse Nats were sold
and became the Philadelphia 76ers. Anybody who knows anything about
American history, knows how Philly got its name.
In 1968, the new Phoenix franchise
offered a cash prize and a couple of season tickets to the winner of a
"name-the-team" contest. "Suns" was the winning name, but runner-ups
included Scorpions, Rattlers, and Dust Devils.
Two years later, in another
"name-the-team" contest in Portland, nearly 200 people contributed for a
new franchise name - Trail Blazers. The New Jersey Nets began life
in the American Basketball Association and were known as the New Jersey
Americans. In 1968, the team left New Jersey and moved to Commack, Long
Island and were re-named the New York Nets.
The reasoning was that since the New York
metropolitan area had the football Jets and the baseball Mets, why not
the basketball Nets? Just before the 1977-78 season, the franchise moved
back across the Hudson River to New Jersey. There were some who thought
the original name -New Jersey Americans - should be brought back, but
the name Nets moved right along with the team.
# # #
You can reach
Harvey Frommer at:
About the Author:
Harvey Frommer is in his 38th year of writing books.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports
books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and
"Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE
STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL
AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to
acclaim in 2011. The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was
Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One.
His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,
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