Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Origins of NBA Team Nicknames (East)

Welcome back to Peculiar Side of Sports.  Every so often something in sports perplexes me, and I just hate not knowing something.  So, I do what any normal, sane sports fan does – I search ad nausea for the answer by any means necessary.  The good news is that I take all my hard work and relay the results to you.

Today we take a look, albeit a very quick one, at the origins of each NBA team’s nickname, beginning with the Eastern Conference.  It’s not meant to be exhaustive  – why do that when you can just look on Wikipedia?  Instead, I wanted to give you a quick glance at how each team arrived at their nicknames.  Of course many of these you will undoubtedly be familiar with, others perhaps not.  Check back tomorrow for the Western Conference.  Are you a hockey fan?  If so, check out my similar articles on NHL teams by visiting the Eastern Conference and Western Conference versions.  Without further ado, I give you today’s Peculiar Side of Sports…


Boston Celtics – The iconic Boston Celtics have been around forever (well, 1946).  Their 17 Championships and lengthy list of Hall of Famers is amongst the greatest in sports.  But why were they named Celtics?  Interestingly, Walter Brown (original owner) was a huge Boston Bruins fan, and only later fell in love with basketball.  Along with his publicity guy from Boston Garden, they contemplated names such as “Whirlwinds”, “Olympics”, and my personal favourite, the “Boston Unicorns”.  HA!  Brown eventually settled on Celtics mostly because of the rather large Irish population, but also after the former team out of New York with the same name.  The publicist was vehemently against it, urging Brown to change the name.  Moron.

Brooklyn Nets – The Brooklyn Nets have a long history – just not in Brooklyn.  The team began as the New Jersey Americans in the ABA, and were changed to the New York Nets in 1968.  The team jumped to the NBA in 1976 and kept the name until 2012 when the team moved to its current home in Brooklyn.  The background behind “Nets” is for two reasons – First, because they shoot the balls into nets, and the second reason is because Nets rhymes with Jets (NFL) and Mets (MLB).  Really, that’s it!  

New York Knicks – This Knicks, or Knickerbockers, are one of only two original NBA teams still in its current home (the other being Boston).  The team has played in Manhattan since 1946, when it played its first game on the road against the Toronto Huskies at Maple Leaf Gardens.  A Knickerbocker is a style of clothes worn often by Dutch settlers in New York (amongst other states) where pants are rolled up just below the knee.  Actually, knickerbockers was first used in the mid 19th century for a baseball team from New York with the same name.  Since then the name has been associated with New York, including a classic cartoon “Father Knickerbocker”.

Philadelphia 76ers – The 76ers have been around since the end of WWII (well, the year after), but existed as the Syracuse Nationals.  The team moved to Philadelphia in 1963, and to decide on a name, they had a name-the-team contest.  The winning bid was 76ers to commemorate the rich history of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Fittingly, the team chose red, white and blue.

Toronto Raptors – Toronto was given an expansion franchise to begin play in 1995 out of SkyDome (now Rogers Centre).  Of course Toronto had a professional team decades before with the Toronto Huskies, but that was before the NBA era.  The overwhelming favourite name was Huskies, and the team was very close to being named that, but the difficulty was in trying to brand themselves with a logo that didn’t look like a Timberwolf rip-off.  Ten choices came out on top of a name-the-team contest: Beavers, Bobcats, Dragons, Grizzlies, Hogs, Raptors, Scorpions, T-Rex, Tarantulas, and Terriers.  Given the popularity of Jurassic Park in the early-mid 90’s, they went with Raptors.  Tarantulas?  C’mon, man!


Chicago Bulls – Trivia time: Do you know either of the other two NBA teams that played in Chicago before the Bulls?  Try the Packers-Zephyrs (see Washington Wizards below) and the Stags, or the Chicago Gears (prior to the NBA forming).  Anyway, the name Bulls was chosen as a shout-out to the rich meat-packing industry in Chicago (who knew?).

Cleveland Cavaliers – The Cavs were an expansion team in 1970.  After a name-the-team contest, the father of a MLB pitcher (Brett Tomko) had the winning entry.  Some of the runners-up: Jays, Foresters and Presidents.

Detroit Pistons – If you assumed the team was named the Pistons because of its home in the Motor City, you’d be wrong.  The team actually got its start in Indiana as the Fort Wayne Pistons.  The original owners also owned a foundry that produced pistons for car manufacturing, so it makes great sense to have kept the name when they moved to Detroit for the 1957 season.

Indiana Pacers – The Pacers have existed since 1967 in the ABA before they joined the NBA when the two merged in 1976.  The ABA’s team was so named because of the rich history of the pace car in the Indy 500, as well as the popularity of harness racing pacers.

Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks have been in Milwaukee since their inception in 1968.  The team had a name-the-team contest, and collected more than 14,000 entries, 45 of them suggesting “Bucks”.  The winning ballot was from a man who chose the name because of the characteristics of a buck; speed, agility and jumping prowess.


Atlanta Hawks – Atlanta’s story actually began in Buffalo as the Buffalo Bisons of the old NBL in 1946.  In fact, there were several stops before finally landing in Atlanta, including the Tri Cities Blackhawks (Illinois) in 1949 when the NBA was formed – they were one of 17 original teams. They chose “Blackhawks” mostly from the Black Hawk War fought in Illinois in the early 19th Century. They team moved to Milwaukee (as the Hawks) then St. Louis (still the Hawks), before finally settling in Atlanta as, naturally, the Hawks.  Though the logo was changed, the name was kept.

Charlotte Bobcats – After the Charlotte Hornets hightailed it out of Dodge, the city new it was getting a new franchise.  The ownership held a name-the-team contest.  It came down to a few choices; the Dragons, the Flight and the eventual winner, the Bobcats.  The name is said to symbolize the large predatory cat, which is indigenous to the area.  There are whispers of the name having something to do with their former owner, “Bob” Johnson.

Miami Heat – The Heat have played out of Miami-Dade County (or Wade County, depending who you are) since their inception in 1988.  At the time, many people were pushing for the team to be named Miami Vice after the stylin’ tv show, but alas, it was not meant to be.  The Heat are called the Heat because it is hot in Miami.  That’s it.

Orlando Magic – Interesting to note; the Orlando Magic were almost named the Orlando Heat!  At almost the same time as Miami was given a team, so too was Orlando.  In a name-the-team contest put on by the team and a local newspaper, over 4000 names were entered, with the aforementioned Magic, Tropics, Juice and Magic garnering the most votes.  Personally, I’d love to have seen the Juice, with a big orange and straw protruding from it – classic!  Being that Orlando is synonymous with Disney, and Disney with “magic”, there ya go.

Washington Wizards – The Wizards have a long tumultuous history.  The team began in Chicago as the Packers, then the Zephyrs.  A year later they moved to Baltimore as the Bullets.  The team moved down the highway (or two) and settled closer to Washington, but they changed to the Capital Bullets (stupid, no?).  The next year they realized how stupid it sounded and changed to the Washington Bullets, which is how it stood for over two decades.  The Bullets owner at the time became disenchanted with the name because of its violent overtones, and given that the team was in Washington, DC – gun violence was (is?) out of control in the nation’s capital.  He held a name-the-team contest, which resulted in these finalists; Dragons, Express, Stallions, Sea Dogs, or Wizards.  Personally, Washington Sea Dogs is just too great to have passed on.


Thanks for reading.  Remember, tomorrow I’ll have the Western Conference for you posted bright and early.  As always, feel free to leave comments below.  Don’t forget to follow the site on Twitter – @lastwordonsport.

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photo credit: Crystian Cruz via photopin cc


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