The process of choosing a team name can be tedious, with owners opting to hear several opinions before deciding on a name. Over the years, there have been downright ridiculous suggestions, but so far, so good, most team names in the NBA are pleasing to hear. Fans across the globe have gotten used to the current names but many do not know what could have been if not for the ingenuity of a few.
It may seem random, but most of the NBA franchises get their names from the histories of the cities. While that does not take away from some of the epic misses in naming teams, several teams chose to retain their nicknames even after moving to new cities. A great example is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have nothing to do with lakes but stuck with the nickname after moving from Minneapolis, a city in Minnesota popularly called the land of 10,000 lakes.
1. Boston Unicorns
The Celtics was a personal choice by the team owner, Walter Brown. He contemplated several names in 1946 including the Unicorns and the Olympians but ultimately stuck with the Celtics. Although there was a bit of unease as most did not think the Irish name would be welcome, Brown was committed to sticking with the name because it has a rich basketball tradition. The New York Celtics were a successful franchise during their run from 1914-1939.
Per NBA.com, Walter Brown wanted Celtics because of basketball tradition:
"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.'"
The Boston Celtics have long been accepted as the official name and is one of the most successful NBA franchises in league history. They are tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for 17 championships, with their most dominant run being in the 1960s.
2. Chicago Matadors
The Chicago Bulls is one of the most popular franchises in NBA history, thanks to the brilliance of Michael Jordan. But in 1966, Richard Klein needed a nickname for his new franchise and was seriously considering the Chicago Matadors. He aimed to correctly portray Chicago as the hub of the meatpacking industry in the US, but the Matadors wouldn't have cut it. Fortunately, he settled on the Bulls, and the name has since resonated with Chicago residents.
In the words of Klein, his son Mark played a vital role in the decision:
“We were the meat capital of the world. 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.”
While the Matadors might sound weird, you could see what Klein was trying to portray the team as to kick-off their NBA journey. There have been dominant years in the Bulls' history as they bulldozed their way to six NBA titles from 1991-1998.
3. Phoenix Cactus Giants
As part of an expansion, the NBA awarded the city of Phoenix a franchise and the search for a befitting name began before the start of the 1968-69 NBA season. Once again, community help was needed as the franchise, in partnership with the Arizona Republic, organized a name-the-team contest. With several names like the Cactus Giants, Sun Lovers, and Scorpions put forward by fans, the owner, Jerry Colangelo, had to do a lot more soul-searching before choosing the Suns because of how well it represented the city.
According to FanSided, the owner had to sort through 28,000 entries before choosing Suns:
"Colangelo simply chose 'Suns' out of 28,000 entries which included the Scorpions, Rattlers, Thunderbirds, and more obscure names such as Tumbleweeds, Poobahs, and Cactus Giants."
To Colangelo, it was the perfect name to represent Arizona, whose sunset is a beautiful sight with lots of purple and orange. Those were also used as the team's official colors. The Phoenix Suns lost the 2021 NBA Finals to the Bucks, making their third finals appearance in franchise history but remains trophyless.
4. Milwaukee Skunks
Wisconsin is well-known for its rich hunting tradition, but for some weird reason, the most popular names in the name-the-team contest were the Robins and Skunks. It is unclear why people wanted to associate the team with an animal that is popularly known for its foul spray. Regardless, the judges were against the suggested names and made the decision themselves. They settled on the Bucks, which was more in tune with the traditions of the city.
According to NBA.com, only 45 people suggested Bucks out of 14,000 entries:
"May 22, 1968, was the day when Milwaukee’s second professional basketball team finally got a name - the Milwaukee Bucks. More than 14,000 fans participated in a contest to name the team. Records show that R.D. Trebilcox of Whitefish Bay, Wis., was one of 45 people who suggested the name ‘Bucks.’ He saw bucks (male deer) as being spirited, good jumpers, fast and agile. For his efforts in helping Milwaukee’s entry into the professional sports world gain an enduring nickname, Mr. Trebilcox won a new car."
Treblicox's vision of the Bucks is embodied by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has all the attributes he mentioned and led them to an NBA championship in 2021. The Bucks have started the 2021-22 NBA season with the same intensity, thrashing the Brooklyn Nets in their season opener.
5. Dallas Wranglers
Through a name-the-team contest held by a local radio station, fans suggested Mavericks and Wranglers as suitable nicknames for the team. Texas has a long history of cattle drives, which makes it understandable why people would suggest the Wranglers. Nonetheless, franchise owner Donald Carter chose Mavericks and rewarded the 41 people that suggested it with tickets to the very first franchise game.
Per Dallas Sports Fanatic, the management had to sought through 4,600 postcards with several names suggestions:
"The team name was ultimately decided by fans mailing in postcards with their chosen mascot. 4600 postcards were mailed in and the Mavericks prevailed over the Wranglers and the Express."
The Dallas Mavericks have gone on to feature in the NBA since 1980 and have one championship to their name. Their lone NBA title came in the 2010-11 season after Dirk Nowitzki pulled off an incredible upset against the Miami Heat super team.
6. Miami Barracudas
The year is 1988, and the city of Miami was awarded an NBA franchise as part of the league's expansion plans. In a public call for name suggestions, the public put forward names like Barracudas, Sharks, Tornadoes, Suntans, etc. The Heat, which represents the warm temperatures of the region, was chosen over the Suntans which seemed like the more obvious choice at the time.
"In October 1986, the owners of Miami's expansion franchise selected Stephanie Freed's Heat submission from more than 20,000 entries, which also included Sharks, Tornadoes, Beaches, and Barracudas." - Scott Allen of MentalFloss.
Although the name doesn't directly translate to success or failure, the Miami Heat has won three championships since its inception. The Heat go into their 34th season not being favorites to win the championship, but they have put together a team that could pull off some major upsets.
7. Orlando Challengers
Via another name-the-team contest in 1986 organized by the Orlando Sentinel, the city of Orlando was presented with Challengers as the most popular suggestion. It was put forward in reverence to the challenger space shuttle that crashed in 1986. However, the judges, after scouring through several suggestions, decided on Magic which is likened to the city's main attraction - Disney World.
According to a 1986 publication by Barry Cooper of the Orlando Sentinel:
"The people who intend to bring professional basketball to Orlando seemed stumped by their task last week. With more than 4,000 pieces of paper spread before them, they faced a task (picking a nickname for their would-be team) that had grown as tall as one of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hooks. And then, shortly before the bewitching hour, Orlando Professional Basketball made a choice.
It's "Magic," said Pat Williams, president of the group."
The Orlando Challengers would have been ironic in recent years, seeing as they've not challenged for much in the league. Nonetheless, we have been treated to some magical years, and are looking forward to more that could lead to their first-ever franchise championship.
8. Minnesota Polars
The Minnesota Blizzard was one of the most popular entries in a name-the-team contest held in 1986 for the franchise out of Minnesota. But because the owners wanted a name that is unique to its home state, the final vote was between the Timberwolves and Polars. The first fan to suggest the Timberwolves was rewarded with a trip to the All-Star game.
According to MinnPost, Minnesota were close to getting name Polars:
"After owner Bob Short moved the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles in 1960, it took almost thirty years for professional basketball to return to Minnesota. In October of 1986, a “Name the Team” contest was held to come up with a nickname for a potential expansion team for Minnesota. A total of 6,076 entries, featuring 1,284 different nicknames, was submitted, with “Timberwolves” and “Polars” being most popular. Minnesota’s 842 city councils selected the nickname “Timberwolves” as the winner."
It has been a struggle for the Minnesota Timberwolves since they joined the NBA. They have made the playoffs once in the last 14 seasons and have never made it past the conference finals.
9. Vancouver Mounties
The NBA expansion spread to Canada in 1994 and two cities were awarded an expansion franchise, one of which was Vancouver. The team owner leaned towards the Mounties but the fans objected, which kept the name search ongoing for a while longer. Following the successful hosting of a name-the-team contest by a local newspaper, the franchise chose to go with the Grizzlies, a species of bear found in the region. The team moved to Memphis in 2001 and retained the name, despite FedEx's $100 million offer to rename the team the Express.
Ethan Trex of the Wall Street Journal reported that Mounties was suggested as a tribute to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police:
"When Vancouver got an NBA team for the 1995 season, the franchise wanted to call itself the Vancouver Mounties. The name seemed like a fitting tribute to the bravery of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The plan hit a snag, though, when the Mounties, no doubt skeptical of any cultural crossovers after Dudley Do-Right, made it clear that they didn't want their name slapped on the expansion franchise."
Looking back to how things have played out with the franchise moving to Memphis, the decision to not use the Mounties was great. They might have had to rename the team in 2001 when the team left Canada.
10. Washington Dragons
The Washington Wizards were once called the Bullets from 1963-1996, but increased pressure from the public and an unfortunate incident that led to the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a close friend of the team's owner Abe Pollin almost led to the Washington team being called the Dragons. The public image of the team was deteriorating as it was linked to gun violence. In a statement Pollin said;
"My friend was shot in the back by bullets. The name ‘Bullets’ is no longer appropriate for a sports team.”
Through a name-the-team contest, fans voted for the Dragons, Express, and Wizards, among others. In the end, the franchise announced the Wizards as the winning name before the start of the 1997-98 season.
According to NBC Sports, the selection process was not an easy task:
"The process leading to the name "Wizards" wasn't as easy as some may think. In 1997 the team opened up 1-800 lines to the community and allowed them to vote on a number of possible names to replace Bullets.
The options included Sea Dogs, Dragons, Express, Stallions and Wizards."
The last time the franchise won a championship was when they were called the Bullets. Since their name change in 1997, they've not made it past the conference semi-finals and are unlikely to make a deep run in the new season.
Credit for an idea: Buckets/Instagram