Stories behind every NBA team name

Written by:
January 24, 2020
Tom Pennington // Getty Images

Stories behind every NBA team name

Throughout the NBA's history, the league has been an incubator for creativity, particularly when it comes to naming teams. Lions, Tigers, and Bears have never been the blueprint for basketball nicknames, and with many unique markets, the NBA has a much more diverse plate of offerings than other professional leagues.

Even the most classic franchises, from the Boston Celtics to the New York Knicks (short for Knickerbockers), have drawn on eccentric backgrounds. Modern-day NBA teams have often gravitated toward local heritage or even the ingenuity of fans, who come up with everything from the absurd to the iconic in naming contests. Sometimes, even the country's political climate can influence how a team chooses to brand itself, with the franchise located in the nation's capital choosing a progressive stance on name alterations back in 1997.

Using information from and local media sources, Stacker dove into the history and stories behind every NBA team name. Aside from naming origins, we also trace the lineage of name changes, as it is not uncommon for sports teams to uproot and move to different locales. (This, of course, can lead to some awkward creations if a club chooses to retain its former name, which has no geographical resonance in their new landing spot—we're looking at you, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.)

There have also been some fortunate misses through NBA history; did you know the Brooklyn Nets, when playing in New Jersey, were almost called the Swamp Dragons? Not to mention a bit of a confusing swap of names between New Orleans and Charlotte. Click through to find out more about these stories and more, including which team has tie-ins to America's favorite amusement park, what exactly a “Pacer” stands for, and the rude reception that initially greeted Portland's choice for their NBA team name.

You may also like: Stories behind every MLB team name

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Atlanta Hawks

This franchise originated in the Midwest as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. The three cities were Moline and Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa. Blackhawks derived from the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk, whose tribe once inhabited the area. Eventually, the team moved to Milwaukee, shortened its name to the Hawks, and then relocated to St. Louis before finally settling in Atlanta.

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Boston Celtics

Would one of the NBA's most storied franchises had as much success if they were called the Unicorns? That was one of the early options for the Boston Celtics, along with Whirlwinds and Olympians. While it may have been fun to see the classic green and white replaced with a panoply of rainbow colors, Boston fans are probably happy founder Walter Brown chose the current team name in a nod to a former Celtics basketball team in New York, and New England's strong Irish influence.

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Brooklyn Nets

Originally called the Americans when based in the American Basketball Association, the Brooklyn Nets have bounced around New York and New Jersey during its history. Nets was chosen because it rhymed with other local teams (Jets, Mets), but at times the franchise has considered calling themselves the Swamp Dragons, as well as the Brooklyn Knights or Ballers.

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Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte's NBA team reincarnated itself as the Hornets in 2014. Get your notebook ready, because this one is kind of tricky. In 2002, the original Hornets relocated to New Orleans, but in 2004, a new franchise arrived in Charlotte and called themselves the Bobcats. In 2013, the New Orleans club rebranded themselves as the Pelicans, and the Charlotte franchise took back the Hornets name the following year. 

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Chicago Bulls

According to team lore, the Windy City's meatpacking tradition and the location of their first arena near Chicago's stockyards led to the christening of the Bulls. Owner Dick Klein settled on the name when he heard his son retort back one day, “Dad, that's a bunch of bull!”

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Cleveland Cavaliers

In 1970, Cleveland's NBA team had a naming contest and local native Jerry Tomko wrote an essay touting Cavaliers. Tomko opined that the name, “represents a group of daring, fearless men, whose life's pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.”

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Dallas Mavericks

Like many newcomers to the NBA, Dallas held a naming contest when they were awarded a franchise in 1980. In a vote, Mavericks beat out other Texas-themed nicknames like Wranglers and the Express.

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Denver Nuggets

Denver's American Basketball Association team was called the Rockets, but by the time they reached the NBA in the 1970s, Houston had already laid claim to that name. A switch to Nuggets was made, a nod to the area's mining history during the 1800s, as well as a short-lived basketball team from 1949.

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Detroit Pistons

Once known as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, the team dropped owner Fred Zollner's name in 1948, and has since been known in Michigan as the Pistons, which refers to the area's auto industry presence. In 1957, the team officially moved to Detroit.

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Golden State Warriors

This nickname is not a nod to the 1979 eponymous film about a group of New York gangs, but has roots in Philadelphia, where the Warriors first played. The franchise has since scrapped most references to Native Americans in logos and uniforms, and instead draws heavily on ties to the Bay Area.

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Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets are one of the rare cases in NBA history where keeping an original name in relocation is a prescient move. This team was originally in San Diego and Rockets acknowledged the city's space-industry history. When they shipped out to Houston, Rockets still held relevance due to NASA's Space Center being located in the city.

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Indiana Pacers

Drawing on the state's storied harness racing and IndyCar events, Pacers was selected for Indiana's American Basketball Association franchise in 1967. The name stayed the same when the club joined the NBA in 1976.

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Los Angeles Clippers

In 1978, the Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego. Due to the city's sailing industry, the team became known as the Clippers, and remained the same through a move to Los Angeles in 1984.

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Los Angeles Lakers

This is a perfect example of a relocated team's nickname not making much sense. Originally based in Minneapolis, the Lakers were named after the Minnesota state nickname of being “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” However, with a lack of lakes in Los Angeles, despite the alliteration, the choice to stay with Lakers is somewhat flummoxing.

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Memphis Grizzlies

When the NBA expanded to Canada in 1995, the Vancouver Grizzlies signaled a tie to British Columbia's wildlife. The grizzly bear is not indigenous to Memphis, but local fans supported keeping the name when the franchise arrived in Tennessee in 2001. However, the city's zoo has housed a few grizzlies over the years.

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Miami Heat

Originally called the Florida Heat, the south Florida team changed their name to Miami since the NBA also awarded an expansion franchise to the city of Orlando in the late 1980s. At the time, some locals wanted to name the team “Vice” after the seminal television show; 30 years later, they'd be somewhat rewarded when the Heat released special “Miami Vice” edition jerseys.

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Maddie Meyer // Getty Images

Milwaukee Bucks

A naming contest spurred the creation of the Milwaukee Bucks, as Wisconsin resident R.D. Treblicox beat out more than 14,000 other entries and even won a new car. The Bucks' general manager at the time, John Erickson, wanted a name that captured the game and wildlife presence “indigenous to Wisconsin.”

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Minnesota Timberwolves

One of the more original nicknames in professional sports, the Minnesota Timberwolves were almost called the “Polars.” While these two nominees were chosen from fan submissions, the final vote came down to Minnesota's 842 city councils, who froze out the Polars. Minnesota is the only state in the contiguous United States that has always held a viable gray wolf population.

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New Orleans Pelicans

As previously noted, the New Orleans Pelicans are intertwined with the Charlotte Hornets. Although they began taking the Hornets' nickname, ownership eventually decided a name that better reflected the city's geography was more apropos. The nickname Hornets "didn't mean anything to this community," owner Tom Benson said at the time.

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New York Knicks

Knickerbocker is a bit of a New York-specific term, with Dutch origins (today, there's even The Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square). Area baseball teams first adopted the term as a nickname, and when a professional basketball franchise was formed in the city, the choice of Knickerbockers, later shortened to Knicks, was reportedly chosen out of a hat.

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Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder arrived with a storm of controversy; the team was relocated from Seattle. However, Thunder actually refers to the team's location near Tornado Alley, as well as the local 45th Infantry Division's “Thunderbirds” nickname.

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Orlando Magic

Although there is no official declaration that Orlando's NBA team's nickname relates to the nearby presence of Mickey Mouse, it's hard to ignore the impact the Magic Kingdom of Disney World has had on the city. The committee to choose the team name said the name refers to “the magic of Orlando,” but Disney's presence is still felt within the team fabric, as they are the sponsor patch on the Magic's jerseys.

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Philadelphia 76ers

After a humble beginning as the Syracuse Nationals, this NBA team moved to Philadelphia in 1963. The franchise was named after the year 1776, when many of America's most influential events took place, with Philadelphia as a hub of the action.

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Phoenix Suns

Another team whose name's origin can be deduced rather simply, the Phoenix Suns were designated in a nod to the climate of the American Southwest. A sun is not the simplest object to anthropomorphize, so in the 1980s, the franchise introduced a gorilla, which has gone on to become one of the most iconic mascots in sports.

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Portland Trail Blazers

Team executive vice president Harry Glickman said Trail Blazers was chosen to represent Portland to connote “both the ruggedness of the Pacific Northwest and the start of a major league era in our state.” When the name was introduced to fans during an exhibition game in 1970, the locals roundly booed the choice. In the nearly half-decade since, Portlanders have come to love their Blazers.

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Sacramento Kings

Like most royal families, the Sacramento Kings have a lineage steeped in honor. The franchise began in Rochester, N.Y., and were known for a majority of their time as the Royals. When the team left for the Midwest, they switched to being called the Kings. After stops in Cincinnati and Kansas City, the club settled in Sacramento and kept the Kings moniker.

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San Antonio Spurs

Previously existing as an American Basketball Association team in Dallas, the San Antonio Spurs were originally called the Gunslingers. But before they even played a game, the franchise changed the name to Spurs. Later, a United States Football League team went with Gunslingers and performed terribly on the field; the Spurs, meanwhile, have been one of the NBA's model franchises over the past two decades.

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Toronto Raptors

Canada's only current NBA team was coined in a naming contest, where Toronto Raptors beat out Beavers, Hogs, and Scorpions. Today, rapper Drake has become an unofficial mascot of the Raptors, even creating a special line of Raptors jerseys inspired by his OVO record label.

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Utah Jazz

With the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz are probably the most egregious offenders of relocated teams with abysmal nicknames. Formerly located in New Orleans, the Jazz once had a name that perfectly matched their surroundings. While Salt Lake City has its charms, jazz music has never been known as its calling card.

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Ezra Shaw // Getty Images

Washington Wizards

In 1997, the NBA's Washington D.C. franchise made the wise decision of changing their team name from Bullets to Wizards. As a rebuke to gun violence, the team went with a more family-friendly choice. Ironically, in 2009, Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was suspended for bringing guns into the locker room.

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