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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 know him.'"

But back to the subject at hand - -NBA team nicknames.

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 mind."

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 quality.

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 State Warriors.

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 after all.

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.

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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

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, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

FROMMER SPORTSNET (syndicated) reaches a readership in the millions and is housed on Internet search engines for extended periods of time.
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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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