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Stories behind every NBA team name

  • 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.

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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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • 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!”

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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