One of our readers asked us the other day, how the NBA teams got their names, so we went researched a bit and we found some interesting history behind teams’ names. So here is the back-story of how 31 NBA teams got their names.


1. Bobcats: “The Charlotte Bobcats team will be as athletic, fierce and hard-working as the bobcat itself,” noted owner Bob Johnson, who referred to the animal that is being used for the first time as the name of a professional sports franchise. Bobcats, indigenous to the Carolinas but infrequently seen because of their stealth and nocturnal habits, are fierce and swift. They attack with the aid of an expansive 10-foot leap, making them an ideal representative for Charlotte’s new NBA entry. “No one wants to meet up with a bobcat in the woods, and that’s the feeling we intend to create on the court with our team’s new identity.”

2. Bucks: This team’s nickname was selected from more than 14,000 contest entries, and the winner was R.D. Treblicox of Whitefish Bay, Wis. His choice of Bucks for the club that entered the NBA in 1968 won him a new car. Contest judges chose a name that reflected the fish and game area “because it is indigenous to Wisconsin,” said then-General Manager John Erickson. “The predominance of bucks led us to the name.”

3. Bulls: The name denoted strength and power, and it tied in to the city’s meatpacking tradition and the Chicago Amphitheater’s (first home court of the Bulls) proximity to the famed Chicago Stockyards. The one-syllable directness of the Bulls was also in line with Chicago’s other team nicknames—Bears, (White) Sox, Cubs, and (Black) Hawks. “We were the meat capital of the world,” said Klein at the time. “At first, I was thinking of names like Matadors (funny how that worked out given today’s Matadors) or Toreadors, but if you think about it, no team with as many as three syllables in its nickname has ever had much success except for the Canadians. I was sitting around the house, kicking these names around with my wife and three sons, when my little son Mark said, ‘Dad, that’s a bunch of bull!’ I said, ‘That’s it! We’ll call them the Bulls!’ And that’s how the team got its nickname.”

4. Cavs: In 1970, Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer, held a contest to name the city’s new basketball club. Contest winner Jerry Tomko wrote that the Cavaliers “represent a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.” The nickname is frequently shortened to Cavs.

5. Celtics: Walter Brown headed the Boston Garden Arena Corporation and named the new basketball team. Various nicknames were batted around, including Whirlwinds, Olympians and Unicorns. But Brown wanted Celtics, explaining, “The name has a great basketball tradition from the old Original Celtics in New York (1914-1939). And Boston is full of Irishmen.”


6. Clippers: In 1978, San Diego welcomed the relocation of the Buffalo Braves’ franchise because the city had lost their Rockets to Houston seven years earlier. San Diego team officials didn’t think Braves was a representative nickname for the club. A contest decided on Clippers because the city was known for the great sailing ships that passed through San Diego Bay. When the Clippers moved to Los Angeles in 1984, they kept their nickname.

7. Grizzlies: When the Grizzlies came into existence in Vancouver, British Columbia, prior to the 1995-96 season, the ownership group wanted a name symbolic of Vancouver and the entire province of British Columbia. After initially tabbing “Mounties” as the team’s name, a tribute to Canada’s iconic Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the franchise instead changed the name to “Grizzlies”. Grizzly bears are indigenous to British Columbia, and are a highly prominent icon both in northwestern native culture and Western Canada as a whole.

8. Hawks: In 1946, the National Basketball League granted a franchise to three cities along the Mississippi River — Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. Because Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk’s tribe was located in Rock Island and a major part of the 1831 Black Hawk War was fought in the surrounding areas, the team was named the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. The club joined the NBA in 1949, and in 1951, the franchise relocated to Milwaukee, where the nickname was shortened to Hawks. The team moved to St. Louis in 1955, and finally to Atlanta in 1968.

9. Heat: When Miami was awarded an NBA franchise to begin play in 1988, team officials wanted to have the fans in South Florida involved in the naming, so a contest was held. Among more than 5,000 entries submitted were Sharks, Barracudas, Flamingos, Palm Trees, Beaches, Heat, Suntan, Shade, Tornadoes and Floridians. “The Heat was it,” said the team’s general partner, Zev Bufman. “When you think of Miami, that’s what you think of.”

10. Hornets: Originally, the new team was going to be called the Charlotte Spirit, but a name-the-team contest yielded “Hornets” as the winning choice. The name was derived from the city’s fierce resistance to British occupation during the Revolutionary War, which prompted the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, to refer to it as “a veritable hornet’s nest of rebellion”. The name had been used for Charlotte sports teams before, including a minor league baseball team that was located in the city from 1901 to 1972, as well as a World Football League team that played there from 1974 to 1975. In addition the Charlotte 49ers and Davidson Wildcats of the NCAA play annually for the Hornets’ Nest Trophy.


11. Jazz: In 1974 a contest was held to name the expansion team in New Orleans. Of the more than 6,500 names submitted, eight semi-finalists emerged: Jazz, Dukes, Crescents, Pilots, Cajuns, Blues, Deltas, and Knights. After much deliberation, team officials announced that the new team name would be the New Orleans Jazz on June 7, 1974. As the undisputed “jazz capital of the world”, the city embraced the new name. And, for the second time, Jazz had been born in New Orleans. To convey a distinct Mardi Gras theme, purple gold, and green colors were used to create the original logo.

12. Kings: Were Royals in Cincinatti and Rochester. Upon moving to Kansas City, changed name to similar “Kings” to avoid confusion with Royals of baseball

13. Knicks: The term “Knickerbockers” traces its origin back to the Dutch settlers who came to the New World — and especially to what is now New York — in the 1600s. Specifically, it refers to the style of pants the settlers wore … pants that rolled up just below the knee, which became known as “Knickerbockers,” or “knickers”.

14. Lakers: The nickname chosen for the team was based on the state motto, “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Even though there are few lakes in Los Angeles, the nickname was retained when the team relocated there in 1960.

15. Magic: So a contest was held with the Orlando Sentinel for fans to submit their picks for the name of the future team. A total of 4,296 entries were submitted and after a committee was selected to review the entries, four names emerged as finalists – the “Heat”, the “Tropics”, the “Juice” and the “Magic”. While the group pondered which one of the finalists would be selected, Williams’ 7-year-old daughter, Karen, paid a visit to her father from the family’s home in Philadelphia. After spending some time together checking out Orlando’s attractions, Pat took Karen to the airport for her flight home. As she waited for her flight, Karen said something that would leave a lasting an impression on the city of Orlando


16. Mavs: A Dallas radio station sponsored a name-the-team contest and recommended the finalists to team owner Donald Carter, who ultimately chose Mavericks over Wranglers and Express. The 41 fans who suggested Mavericks each won a pair of tickets to the season opener and one of those fans, Carla Springer, won a drawing for season tickets. Springer, a freelance writer, said the nickname “represents the independent, flamboyant style of the Dallas people.” That’s certainly an apt description for current team owner Mark Cuban.

17. Nets: The New Jersey Americans were charter members of the ABA in 1967. The team moved to Commack, N.Y., the following year and changed its name to New York Nets, after one of the most important parts of the basketball game — the net. Also, Nets rhymed with other New York sports franchises, baseball’s Mets and football’s Jets. Before joining the NBA in 1977, the team returned to the Garden State, kept its nickname and became the New Jersey Nets.

18. Nuggets: The franchise was known as the Denver Rockets when it entered the American Basketball Association in 1967. The same year, an NBA expansion franchise named the San Diego (now Houston) Rockets began play. After seven seasons, and with entry into the NBA looming, Denver team officials renamed their club. Nuggets refers to the 19th century mining boom in Colorado, when people rushed to the area, hoping to make their fortunes by panning for gold and silver nuggets. It also refers to a team from Denver that played one season (1949-50) in the NBA.

19. Pacers: An original member of the ABA, this franchise’s nickname was decided on by the group of investors. Indianapolis attorney Richard D. Tinkham recalls the nickname Pacers was chosen because it was reflective both of the state’s rich history with harness racing pacers and the pace car used for the running of the Indianapolis 500.

20. Pelicans: Unbeknownst to many pundits who weighed in on the New Orleans NBA franchise’s decision to select the nickname “Pelicans,” the moniker is far from a new one. In fact, “New Orleans Pelicans” is one of the oldest names in professional sports, dating all the way to at least the Civil War era. In order words, when Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and their teammates take the floor in October, they won’t be the first local pro athletes to rep the name “New Orleans Pelicans.” Just the first to do so in the 21st century. Tom Benson said in a statement, “The Pelican is a symbol for our city and region, and we’re excited to start a new era in Louisiana basketball history. This offseason is going to be a special time for the Pelicans.” “The pelican represents New Orleans, just like the Saints. They have incredible resolve. If they can do that, the team can do the same.” The brown pelican is Louisiana’s state bird and has become identified with efforts to restore Louisiana’s coast, which has been damaged extensively by the 2010 BP oil spill and erosion from Katrina and other storms. Images of the pelicans covered with oil were plentiful after the oil spill.


21. Pistons: The franchise was founded in Fort Wayne, Ind., as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, a National Basketball League (NBL) team. Owner Fred Zollner ran a foundry that manufactured pistons primarily for car, truck and locomotive engines. In 1948, the team dropped “Zollner” from the name and became the Fort Wayne Pistons, competing in the Basketball Association of America. In 1949, Fred Zollner brokered the formation of the National Basketball Association from the BAA and the NBL at his kitchen table. Though the Pistons enjoyed a solid local following, their city’s small size made it difficult for them to be profitable. In 1957, Zollner moved the team to Detroit, a much larger city that hadn’t seen professional basketball in a decade. When the team relocated to the Motor City, the name Pistons was still appropriate in the nation’s automobile capital.

22. Raptors : Now that Toronto was awarded a franchise, a nationwide “Name Game” contest to name the team would follow as the franchise felt that turning to the fans to help develop an identity was the ideal course to take. The name game became one of the most popular in league history, generating more than 2,000 different entries. The final top -10 list was dominated by animal names. The list included, Beavers, Bobcats, Dragons, Grizzlies, Hogs (Toronto’s nickname is Hogtown), Raptors, Scorpions, T-Rex, Tarantulas, and Terriers. On May 15, the team’s new moniker, the Toronto Raptors, was unveiled on national television. The team colours were to be bright red, purple, black, and “Naismith silver” – in honour of Canadian James Naismith, who invented the game of basketball in 1891.

23. Rockets: In 1967, San Diego became the 12th member of the NBA. Basketball fans there were asked to choose a nickname for the team. Rockets was picked because it reflected the outstanding growth of space-age industries in San Diego. Even though the team relocated to Houston in 1971, the nickname still fits because of the NASA space program’s operation center there.

24. Sixers: 1776. AMERICA.

25. Sonics/Thunder : The nickname for this franchise, which entered the NBA in 1967, was inspired by the Boeing plant in Seattle. One year earlier, the company had begun work on a Concorde-like airplane, which was to be called the Supersonic Transport. The plane never got off the ground, but Boeing’s involvement left quite an impression on the citizens of Seattle. When asked to name the new club, SuperSonics won by a landslide. The nickname frequently is shortened to Sonics. Thunder = tornadoes, buffalo, etc.


26. Spurs: An original member of the ABA, this franchise—which joined the NBA in 1976 – was born in Dallas as the Chaparrals. When the original investors agreed to start a team, they were dining in a posh club called the Chaparral Club. One of the owners noticed an image of the chaparral, which is a roadrunner, on the napkin, and everyone agreed the bird would make a nice, lively mascot. In 1970, they became a regional franchise called the Texas Chaparrals, then they relocated to San Antonio in 1973. Team officials wanted a name that reflected the Western heritage of Texas, so a contest was held and the name Spurs was chosen.

27. Suns: Of course, Jerry Colangelo, then-general manager of the new franchise, went on to select “Suns” out of the 28,000 responses received in the “Name the Team” contest. Selinda King won season tickets for one year and $1,000 cash after being selected the lucky winner of the contest. Could have been Firebirds.

28. Trailblazers: Just two weeks after Portland was granted an NBA expansion franchise on Feb. 24, 1970, Harry Glickman, then executive vice president of the club, announced a public “name the team” contest. A panel of judges was selected. Harry said boxes and boxes of entries arrived at the team headquarters then located in a storefront office on S.W. Yamhill between 5th and 6th Avenues. “There had to be 10,000 entries at least,” he remembers. The Trail Blazers name was announced to a crowd of 11,035 during halftime of a March 13 regular season NBA SuperSonics-Knicks contest in the Memorial Coliseum. It was received, according to Oregon Journal Sports Editor George Pasero, with less than enthusiastic response including a spattering of boos. “It really wasn’t very popular when fans first heard it, but of course we all know that changed,” Glickman remembers. Newspaper concerns about the Trail Blazers name (“How would it ever fit in a headline, etc.”) quickly evaporated. And soon, the Blazers (or Trail Blazers) became a household word in Portland and within seven years worldwide as “Go Blazers” and “Blazermania” became bywords when the city gained a major world championship in its first try. “There were 172 people who sent in the name ‘Trail Blazers’,” Glickman said. The contest winner was determined by a drawing at the March 13 game. Blake Byrne, general sales manager of KPTV, was the winner of the drawing, receiving two season tickets to Trail Blazers home games that year. The nickname was unique in professional sports at the time. No other major professional or university sports teams were using either the Blazers or Trail Blazers in 1970. The name, as Glickman noted at the time, “reflects both the ruggedness of the Pacific Northwest and the start of a major league era in our state.” Trail Blazers (or, more properly trailblazers) is defined by Webster as “One that blazes a trail to guide others: A pathfinder: A pioneer.” The actual name came from a practice by explorers making paths through forests and marking the paths by chopping white “blazes” in trees’ bark so others could follow. The term “trailblazing” is associated today with those on the cutting edge of discovery in such areas as space exploration, science, medicine and technology.

29. Timberwolves: Four months before the NBA granted Minnesota a franchise, the nickname of “Timberwolves” was selected as the winner of a “Name the Team” contest. Fans throughout and beyond Minnesota submitted 6,076 entries featuring 1,284 different nicknames. Timberwolves, which was submitted 17 times, and Polars were the finalists. The other 1,282 entries ran through a number of different categories, including animals, fish, political interests, outer space, already-existing team names, some names that had to be researched in a dictionary and a potpourri of nicknames that no specific category could claim. Upon the selection of the two finalists, the choice of whether the NBA team would be the Timberwolves or Polars was left up to the 842 City Councils around the state. They rendered their decision and only one task was left: to determine the winner of the contest. The names of the 17 entrants who submitted “Timberwolves” were placed in a drawing, which was won by Tim Pope of Brooklyn Center, Minn., who received a trip to the 1987 NBA All-Star Weekend in Seattle.

30. Warriors: When Philadelphia was awarded a charter NBA franchise in 1946, the owners decided to name the team after an old Philadelphia basketball team, the Warriors, who played as members of the American Basketball League in 1925. The team became the San Francisco Warriors after they relocated to the West Coast in 1962, and changed its name to the Golden State Warriors—symbolizing a team belonging to all of California, the Golden State — upon settling into a new home in Oakland in 1971.

31. Wizards: In 1946, the Baltimore franchise was nicknamed Bullets after a nearby ammunition foundry. Though the team disbanded, the Chicago Packers — who later became the Chicago Zephyrs — relocated to Baltimore, and in 1963, the Bullets nickname returned. In 1996, team owner Abe Pollin decided to adopt a nickname that portrayed a non-violent image, and selected Wizards. The name depicts energy and an omnipresent power, and brings to light what is hoped to be the wise and magical nature of the team.

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Last Update: April 25, 2016

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