The Sports Lounge presents… What’s Behind a Nickname: The NBA

Every sports fan has their favorite team. Whether it be based on their geographic location, hometown, or just a favoritism of a logo, everyone has “their” team. But do you know why your team is named what they are? Or why any other team has their nickname? In this blog, I’ll look at each NBA team and the reason why they are named what they are. Some are self-explanatory, such as Pistons and Suns. But some have deeper meanings that I will look at right here.

For the meaning behind the nicknames of teams in other leagues, check out my blogs on the NFL, MLB, and NHL.


Atlantic Division


1. Boston Celtics: Walter Brown, the head of the Boston Garden Arena Corporation, gave the team its nickname. He reasoned that it harkened back memories of the old Original Celtics basketball team from New York. It also helps that Boston had a strong Irish presence. Other names mentioned were Whirlwinds,Olympians, and Unicorns. Yes, unicorns!

2. Brooklyn Nets: The franchise started as the New Jersey Americans in the ABA. After a move to New York, they changed their name to the Nets. Part of the reasoning was that it rhymed with other New York franchise names, the Jets and the Mets. They moved back to New Jersey and then to Brooklyn, but kept the nickname despite thoughts of changing it to Swamp Dragons or Fire Dragons.

3. New York Knicks: The New York franchise is named quite simply after pants. To be specific, it is pants that are rolled up just below the knee that were worn by Dutch settlers who came to the New York area in the 1600’s.

4. Philadelphia 76ers: When the city of Philadelphia became the new home of the Syracuse Nationals, their name was changed to the 76ers in honor of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which took place in the city in 1776.

5. Toronto Raptors: After gaining a franchise, the team put on a nation-wide contest to name the team. Some of the top names were Beavers, Bobcats, Hogs, Dragons, Scorpions, Tarantulas, and, of course, Raptors. Raptors was chosen and the team’s merchandise quickly became a top seller before the team ever stepped on the court.

Central Division


1. Chicago Bulls: Dick Klein was the owner of a new NBA franchise in Chicago. He wanted a nickname that would help portray Chicago as the meat capital of the world. He threw around ideas like Matadors when his son apparently said “Dad, that’s a bunch of bull!” And a name was born.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland’s newspaper held a contest to name the team. Jerry Tomko won the contest by  and wrote in saying that Cavaliers  “represent a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.”

3. Detroit Pistons: The franchise was founded in Indiana as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, named after owner Fred Zollner who ran a piston manufacturing company. They eventually dropped Zollner from the name and then later moved to Detroit where the Pistons nickname still made sense because of Detroit’s automobile industries.

4. Indiana Pacers: The name was picked by investors of the ABA team because it represented the state’s history of harness racing pacers and the pace car that is used in the Indianapolis 500. When the team moved to the NBA< the name stayed the same.

5. Milwaukee Bucks: Bucks was the top pick in a name-the-team contest held by the franchise and it is no surprise that the name won given Wisconsin’s rich hunting tradition.

Southeast Division


1. Atlanta Hawks: The franchise began as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, based around the cities of Moline, IL, Rock Island, IL, and Davenport, IA. They were named after the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk, just like Chicago’s NHL franchise. When the team later moved to Milwaukee, the nickname was shortened to Hawks. They kept the nickname after more moves to St. Louis and eventually Atlanta.

2. Charlotte Hornets: Owner George Shinn wanted to name his new franchise the Spirit, but fans voiced their unhappiness with the name and he decided to hold a contest to name the team. Hornets won the contest and did have some historical significance as it is reported that a British commander called Charlotte a nest of hornets during the Revolutionary War. After the franchise moved to New Orleans, Charlotte was awarded an expansion franchise in 2004 and Bobcats won a team-naming contest. They used the Bobcats nickname until 2014 when New Orleans dropped the Hornets nickname and Charlotte took the name back.

3. Miami Heat: Heat was chosen after a contest that also contained names such as Sharks, Barracudas, Flamingos, Palm Trees, Tornadoes, and Sun Tan. I’m not sure if LeBron James would have ever went to a team named the Sun Tan so it is a good thing Heat won the vote!

4. Orlando Magic: Months before the city of Orlando was even awarded a franchise, the prospective owners held a contest to name the team and Magic was picked as the winner. It is also a nod to the city’s tourism industry, especially Disney World.

5. Washington Wizards: When the Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington, the name was kept until , in 1996, team owner Abe Pollin wanted to change the name because of its violent nature. He picked Wizards because it depicted energy and an omnipresent power. Some in the Washington, D.C. area did not like Wizards because they felt it brought about associations with the KKK, but the name stuck with the team.


Northwest Division


1. Denver Nuggets: The Denver franchise began in the ABA as the Rockets. But when they were making the move to the NBA, they needed a new nickname because Rockets was already used in Houston. Nuggets was picked in a contest because it alludes to the city’s mining tradition and the Colorado Gold Rush of the 1850’s.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves: Timberwolves was the name that won a contest to name the team. The contest had a reported 1,284 different nicknames and came down to Timberwolves and Polars. The name Timberwolves does have significant meaning to the state as Minnesota has the largest population of timberwolves in the lower 48 states.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder: The franchise started as the Seattle SuperSonics, named after a Boeing plane named the SuperSonic Transport. When the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, Thunder was chosen from a list of 64 names.

4. Portland Trail Blazers: After getting an expansion franchise, a contest was held and Pioneers was the favorite. But nearby Lewis & Clark College used that nickname, so Trail Blazers was used. The logo for the team Is supposed to represent five players on one team against five on another team.

5. Utah Jazz: The Jazz came to Utah from New Orleans, a city with a rich Jazz history. But when the franchise moved to Salt Lake City, team officials decided just to keep the name.

Pacific Division


1. Golden State Warriors: The team began as the Philadelphia Warriors and then moved to San Francisco. They then moved to Oakland and began calling themselves the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors nickname was picked in Philadelphia because of the Warriors team that played in the American Basketball League in 1925.

2. Los Angeles Clippers: The Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego and wanted to be rebranded. They picked Clippers, a type of ship, because of the city’s location near the ocean. When the team moved to Los Angeles, they kept the nickname.

3. Los Angeles Lakers: The Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League moved to Minneapolis and wanted a nickname relatable to the area, so they picked Lakers. When the franchise moved to Los Angeles, they kept the nickname despite the fact that the name doesn’t fit that city.

4. Phoenix Suns: Suns was chosen in a contest that contained over 28,000 entries. Some of the other entries were Arizoniacs, Basketeers, Cactossers, Dribblers, Moon Shooters, Muleskinners, Sun Lovers, and Upjumpers.

5. Sacramento Kings: The Kings history goes back to the NBL’s Rochester Royals of the NBL. The team moved to Cincinnati and kept the Royals nickname. They then moved again and became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings after a name-the-team contest. When the franchise moved to Northern California, they kept the nickname.

Southwest Division


1. Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks named was picked in a contest over Wranglers and Express. One of winners of the contest was quoted as saying that Mavericks “represents the independent, flamboyant style of the Dallas people.”

2. Houston Rockets: The franchise started in San Diego and picked the nickname Rockets because of the growth of space-age industries in the area. When the franchise moved to Houston, the name still fit because of NASA’s presence in the city.

3. Memphis Grizzlies: After Vancouver was awarded an NBA franchise, Grizzlies was chosen as their nickname. Grizzly bears are indigenous to the area so the name made sense. When the team moved to Memphis, ownership looked to change the name, but fans had already grown to embrace the name. FedEx, a giant Memphis company who purchased the naming rights to the Grizzlies home arena, was ready to propose a name change to Express but it was shot down by the NBA.

4. New Orleans Pelicans: The franchise came to New Orleans from Charlotte and kept the Hornets nickname until 2013 when they rebranded themselves and selected the name Pelicans. Owner Tom Benson wanted the name Jazz , but Utah wouldn’t give it up. But Pelicans was eventually selected and was inspired by Louisiana’s state bird. New Orleans also had a minor league baseball team named the Pelicans that played from 1901-1957. Other name ideas were Brass and Krewe.

5. San Antonio Spurs: The franchise started as the Dallas Chaparrals in the ABA. When the franchise relocated to San Antonio, the owners wanted a nickname to better represent Western Texas and Spurs was picked from a contest.

Thanks to the following sites for information: NBA, Wikipedia, and mental_floss

Daryl Karpinski Jr.