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Peculiar Side of Sports: Origins of NBA Team Nicknames (West)

Welcome back to Peculiar Side of Sports.  Yesterday we took a look at the origins of team names from the Eastern Conference.  Today we switch to the Western Conference.  On a side note, if you happen to be a hockey fan, check out my similar articles on NHL teams by visiting the Eastern Conference and Western Conference versions.  Remember, this is 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.  If  you have an idea for a future version of Peculiar Side of Sports – perhaps you have a nagging question that needs answering, please leave me a message in the comments below.  Without further ado, I give you today’s Peculiar Side of Sports…


Southwest Division

Dallas Mavericks – Before Dallas had the Mavs, they had the Dallas Chaparrals (see S.A. Spurs) of the ABA.  After they bolted for their state rivals, the city was granted an expansion team in 1979 to begin play the following year.  The owners conducted a name-the-team contest, which resulted in three front-runners: the Mavericks, Wranglers and Express.  The name Mavericks won out (though Wranglers would have been cool too), and it’s said to have been a tribute to the tv series in the 50’s and 60’s “Maverick”, starring James Garner.

Houston Rockets – When I first started looking into team names, I really assumed the Rockets stemmed from the fact that NASA has offices in Houston – Houston, we have a problem.  Silly me.  I didn’t realize that the team actually began in San Diego as the rockets.  Tell me San Diego doesn’t have a space station, do they?  The expansion team was bought in 1967 for a pittance of $1.75 million (is it fair to say they are worth 300 times that now?).  Actually, their name’s history isn’t so far from what you would assume.  San Diego is home to the Atlas missle and booster rocket program.  So “Rockets” was a natural, and when they moved to Houston in 1971, the name made perfect sense given the whole NASA thing.  Logic rules.

Memphis Grizzlies – While the Rockets seems a logical name, the Grizzlies in Memphis does not.  When Vancouver was given an expansion team along with Toronto, the city came up with the Mounties.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) opposed the name, which was then scrapped.  The runner-up, Grizzlies, was chosen to represent the bear native to British Columbia.  The team relocated to Memphis in 2001, and kept the name.  Grizzly bears are not currently found anywhere close to Memphis, but historically some argue their range extended to the northwestern tip of the state.

New Orleans Pelicans – I love that they are the Pelicans.  Even though it’s fresh in people’s minds, I’ve had many people ask me about their name.  The story dates back to 1988 with the Charlotte Hornets.  The area is renowned for basketball, particularly as a result of the strong Tar Heel teams – made much stronger that that ‘Michael’ guy.  The team entered the NBA as the Charlotte Hornets after a name-the-team contest.  Interestingly, some in the ownership group preferred Charlotte Spirit, but the fans’ choice won out.  After the team’s owner got into some ‘hot water’ over an alleged rape charge, they almost moved to Memphis.

San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs joined in 1967 as the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA.  They became the Texas Chaparrals in 1970 because of poor attendance.  The thinking was that a regional team would garner support from outlying areas.  It didn’t work.  The franchise found its permanent home in San Antonio in 1973 under the name Gunslingers.  The 36 owners (a group of businessmen from San Antonio), changed to the Spurs before playing  a single game.  Their rationale had to do with “Spurs” being a better representation than Gunslingers, which might have negative connotations.  In 1976 the franchise joined the NBA and have been the San Antonio Spurs since.

Northwest Division

Denver Nuggets – Believe it or not, the original name of the franchise was the Larks after the state bird of Colorado – how great would that be to have Larks and Pelicans.  To back it up even further, the team was originally supposed to play out of Kansas City, but changed to Denver.  I digress.  The team was the Larks when Denver first got its team in 1967, but ownership, likely realizing how stupid that would sound, changed their name to the Rockets (which is confusing, given the whole San Diego-Houston situation noted above) before playing a single game.  Ringsby, the team’s majority owner, had a fleet of trucks and named the team after him.  Several seasons later, it was apparent that the NBA and ABA would be coming together, and seeing as how there was a Rockets already, they changed to the Nuggets to honour the Denver team that played in the late 40’s in the NBA (the two franchises are unrelated).

Minnesota Timberwolves – Minnesota was granted its first NBA team since their 1960 team bolted further west (described later on), and their two ABA teams, the Muskies (a predatory lake fish) and Pipers, were defunct.   The new team was set to play in 1989.  Ownership opted for the fan-friendly name-the-team contest, which resulted in several popular choices including the Polars and Timberwolves.  The team asked local politicians to decide – they picked Timberwolves as the state is home to the greatest concentration of the animal outside of Alaska and Canada.

Portland Trail Blazers – The Trail Blazers have been around since 1970, but their name’s history remains unknown by many.  This has nothing to do with this article, but I thought it interesting that the Blazers had the longest streak of sold out games in ALL of professional sports with 814 (it was the longest at that time, and from what I can tell is still a record).  The name was chosen by way of a name-the-team contest, though it was runner-up to “Pioneers”.  The team opted for Trail Blazers because Pioneers was already being used by another local team.  Ever look at the Blazers’ logo and think “what the hell is that”?  Me too.  Apparently it’s interpretive art, symbolizing two teams of five guys going up and down the court.  Ummm, okay…

Oklahoma City Thunder – In the 1967 expansion, Seattle was given their Supersonics, which was coined as a result of the home of the Supersonic Transport aircrafts from Boeing.  The project was canceled, but the team kept the name anyway.  Seattle kept its Sonics through the 2008, when a messy court battle between owner and city over lease agreements resulted in the team’s relocation to its current home in Oklahoma.  The team took their trophies and banners, but left the name, logo and colours.  I found three references for “Thunder” as legitimate reasons for their moniker; the area is known as “Thunder Alley” for its wicked storms.  Garth Brooks, a native of Oklahoma, had a massive hit “Thunder Rolls”.  Finally, the 45th infantry out of Oklahoma City is called “The Thunderbirds”.  Pretty convincing…

Utah Jazz – Fittingly, the name “Jazz” was actually given to the team’s original location in New Orleans – makes sense now, right?  However, the team really couldn’t find a suitable venue.  Before being relocated to Utah, the team could have landed Magic Johnson  in the 1979 Draft, but it had traded that pick for Gail Goodrich – oops!  Gail is a Hall of Famer, but he’s not “Magic”.  The team decided to keep its colours and names despite Utah being literally and figuratively a thousand miles from New Orleans.


Pacific Division

Golden State Warriors – The Warriors were born in Philadelphia in 1946 in the old Basketball Association of America, and were so named after an earlier team in Philadelphia of the same name.  The team moved to San Francisco, playing out of the Cow Palace (great, great name) and kept the Warriors name.  The team started playing some games out of the shiny new Oakland Coliseum.  “Some” became many, and the team made the move to playing games out of Oakland instead of San Francisco (a few games were played in San Diego at first.  The team became Golden State rather than Oakland to symbolize its relationship to both Bay-area cities.

Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers have their roots in Buffalo of all places.  The Buffalo Braves were given an expansion team in 1970, and named their team after the strong history of aboriginals in the area.  The team moved to San Diego for the 1978 season and were named the Clippers.  The name has two relevant meanings: a clipper is a quick sailing vessel, and seeing as how San Diego sits oceanside, the name fits.  “Clipper” can also refer to speed, which is certainly needed on the hardwood.

Los Angeles Lakers – I knew the Lakers played in Minnesota before Los Angeles, but I didn’t realize that they began in Detroit first. The team began as the Detroit Gems in 1946 and played two seasons before leaving for Minneapolis when the NBL broke apart.  The new team was called the Lakers as a tribute to Minnesota being called “Land of 10,000 lakes”.  When their owner bolted for the left coast, he decided to keep the name.  I’m pretty sure there are very few lakes in Los Angeles, but whatever.

Phoenix Suns – Phoenix was granted a team in 1968, and has been located in the same city to this day.  “Suns” was not the only choice when the ownership held a name-the-team contest.  In fact, the franchise might have been called Wranglers, Mavericks, Mustangs, Cougars, Rattlers or Scorpions.   The team chose Suns as Phoenix is known as the “Valley of the Sun”.

Sacramento Kings – Sacramento has a long, tumultuous history.  The team began in Western New York as the Rochester Seagrams after a local distillery, Seagrams, then changed their name to the Pros when the distillery and team parted ways.  Unsatisfied with the name, they had a name-the-team contest when they were asked to join the NBL after WWII.  The contest resulted in “Royals”.  The team bolted for Cincinnati in 1957, but kept its name.  When the team moved again, this time to Kansas City-Omaha, they chose not to keep “Royals” because of the baseball team using that name (despite the basketball franchise being much older).   They kept KC, dropped Omaha, but they eventually headed west to Sacramento.  The franchise kept the name.

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photo credit: Clint Gardner via photopin cc


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