The Origins of All 30 NBA Team Names

LeBron and Steph
LeBron and Steph
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The Hornets were supposed to be the Spirit, while the Grizzlies were almost named the Mounties. Why is a team in Los Angeles nicknamed the Lakers, and what's a team called the Jazz doing in Utah? Here's the story behind the nicknames of all 30 teams.

Atlanta Hawks

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In 1948, the cities of Moline and Rock Island, IL, and Davenport, IA—collectively known as the Tri-Cities at the time—were awarded a team in the National Basketball League. The team was nicknamed the Blackhawks, who, like Chicago's hockey team, were named after the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk. When the team moved to Milwaukee in 1951, the nickname was shortened to Hawks. The franchise retained the shortened moniker for subsequent moves to St. Louis and finally Atlanta in 1968.

Boston Celtics

Celtics coach Brad Stevens

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Team owner Walter Brown personally chose Celtics over Whirlwinds, Olympians, and Unicorns (yes, Unicorns) as the nickname for Boston's Basketball Association of America team in 1946. Despite the warnings of one of his publicity staffers, who told Brown, "No team with an Irish name has ever won a damned thing in Boston," Brown liked the winning tradition of the nickname; the New York Celtics were a successful franchise during the 1920s.

Brooklyn Nets


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The New Jersey Americans joined the American Basketball Association in 1967 and moved to New York the following season. The team was renamed the New York Nets, which conveniently rhymed with Jets and Mets, two of the Big Apple's other professional franchises. Before the 1977-78 season, the team returned to New Jersey but kept its nickname. In 1994, the Nets were reportedly considering changing their nickname to the Swamp Dragons to boost its marketing efforts. The franchise relocated to Brooklyn in 2012.

Charlotte Hornets

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The three finalists in the name-the-team contest for Charlotte's 2004 expansion franchise were Bobcats, Dragons, and Flight. Owner Bob Johnson was fond of BOBcats, but some of the league's players were less than impressed. "It sounds like a girls' softball team to me," Steve Kerr told reporters at the time. "I guess it shows there aren't many good nicknames left to be had." Perhaps Kerr was right. Bobcats became the Charlotte Hornets in 2014, reuniting the city with its previous NBA franchise's original nickname.

Where did Hornets come from? In 1987, George Shinn and his ownership group announced that Spirit would be the nickname of Charlotte's prospective expansion franchise. Fans voiced their displeasure, and it didn't help that some fans associated the nickname with the PTL Club, a Charlotte-based evangelical Christian television program that was the subject of an investigative report by the Charlotte Observer for its fundraising activities. Shinn decided to sponsor a name-the-team contest and had fans vote on six finalists. More than 9000 ballots were cast and Hornets won by a landslide, beating out Knights, Cougars, Spirit, Crowns, and Stars. Afterwards, Shinn noted that the nickname had some historical significance; during the Revolutionary War, a British commander reportedly referred to the area around Charlotte as a "hornet’s nest of rebellion."

Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls
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According to the Chicago Bulls Encyclopedia, team owner Richard Klein was brainstorming nicknames for his new franchise in 1966 and wanted a name that portrayed Chicago's status as the meat capital of the world. Another theory is that Klein admired the strength and toughness of bulls. Klein was considering Matadors and Toreadors when his young son exclaimed, "Dad, that's a bunch of bull!" The rest is somewhat dubious history.

Cleveland Cavaliers


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Fans voted Cavaliers the team nickname in 1970 in a poll conducted by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. The other finalists included Jays, Foresters, Towers, and Presidents. The Presidents nickname was presumably an allusion to the fact that seven former U.S. Presidents were born in Ohio, second only to Virginia. Jerry Tomko, who suggested Cavaliers in the contest, wrote, "Cavaliers represent a group of daring fearless men, whose life pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds." (Tomko's son, Brett, went on to become a Major League pitcher.)

Dallas Mavericks

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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.

Denver Nuggets


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Denver's ABA team was originally known as the Rockets. When the team was preparing to move to the NBA in 1974, they needed a new nickname, as Rockets was already claimed by the franchise in Houston. Nuggets, an allusion to the city's mining tradition and the Colorado Gold Rush during the late 1850s and early 1860s, was chosen via a name-the-team contest.

Detroit Pistons


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The Pistons trace their roots to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they were known as the Zollner Pistons. (Best logo ever.) What's a Zollner Piston? A piston manufactured by then-team owner Fred Zollner, who named the club after his personal business. When the team moved to Detroit in 1957, Zollner dropped his name from the nickname but retained Pistons. The name was fitting for the Motor City.

Golden State Warriors

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The Philadelphia Warriors, named after the 1920s team that played in the American Basketball League, won the championship in the inaugural 1946-47 season of the Basketball Association of America. The Warriors moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco after the 1961-62 season and retained their nickname. When the team relocated across the Bay to Oakland in 1971, they were renamed the Golden State Warriors.

Houston Rockets

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The Houston Rockets originally called San Diego home. Rockets was chosen via a name-the-team contest and was a reference to the city's theme, "A City In Motion." Liquid-fueled Atlas rockets were also being manufactured in San Diego. When the team moved to Houston in 1971, it made perfectly good sense to keep the name, as Houston was home to a NASA space center.

Indiana Pacers

Indiana Pacers
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According to Michael Leo Donovan's book on team nicknames, Yankees to Fighting Irish: What's Behind Your Favorite Team's Name, the Pacers' nickname was decided upon in 1967 by the team's original investors, including attorney Richard Tinkham. The nickname is a reference to Indiana's rich harness and auto racing history. Pacing describes one of the main gaits for harness racing, while pace cars are used for auto races, such as the Indianapolis 500.

Los Angeles Clippers


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When the NBA's Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego in 1978, the owners wanted to rebrand the team with a new nickname. They settled on Clippers, a popular type of ship during the 19th century. San Diego had been home to the Conquistadors/Sails of the ABA during the 1970s. Donald Sterling bought the Clippers during the 1981-82 season and relocated them to his native Los Angeles in 1984. He lost all respect in San Diego but kept the Clippers name.

Los Angeles Lakers

Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
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How many natural lakes are there in Los Angeles? The short answer: Less than 10,000. When a pair of investors relocated the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League to Minneapolis before the 1947 season, they sought a name that would ring true with the team's new home. Given that Minnesota is "The Land of 10,000 Lakes," they settled on Lakers. When the Lakers moved to Los Angeles before the 1960 season, their nickname was retained, in part because of the tradition the team had established in Minnesota.

Memphis Grizzlies

Marc Gasol
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When Vancouver was awarded an expansion franchise in 1994 to begin play the following season, the team's owners had tentative plans to name the team the Mounties. The Royal Mounted Canadian Police and fans alike objected, so team officials resumed their search for a name. The local newspaper sponsored a name-the-team contest, which club officials monitored before choosing Grizzlies, an indigenous species to the area, over Ravens. When the team relocated to Memphis before the 2001-02 season, FedEx was prepared to offer the Grizzlies $100 million to rename the team the Express, but the NBA rejected the proposal.

Miami Heat

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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.

Milwaukee Bucks


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Despite Wisconsin’s hunting tradition, the most popular entry in the contest to name Milwaukee’s NBA franchise wasn’t Bucks. It was Robins. The judges overruled the public and decided on a more indigenous (and much stronger) name. The choice could have been much worse: Skunks was among the other entries.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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The ownership group for Minnesota's prospective franchise chose Timberwolves through a name-the-team contest in 1986. The nickname beat out Polars by a 2-1 margin in the final vote, which was conducted in 333 of the state's 842 city councils. Tim Pope, who was one of the first fans to nominate Timberwolves, won a trip to the NBA All-Star Game. Pope submitted 10 nicknames in all, including Gun Flints. "I thought a two-word name would win," he told a reporter. The most popular entry in the contest was Blizzard, but the team wanted a nickname that was more unique to its home state. "Minnesota is the only state in the lower 48 with free-roaming packs of timber wolves," a team official said.

New Orleans Pelicans

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Soon after Tom Benson purchased the New Orleans Hornets in 2012, the team announced they were going to change their name. According to Yahoo's Marc J. Spears, they "considered the nicknames Krewe (groups of costumed paraders in the annual Mardi Gras carnival in New Orleans) and Brass," but settled on Pelicans—after the brown pelican, Louisiana's state bird.

New York Knicks

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The term "Knickerbockers" referred specifically to pants rolled up just below the knee by Dutch settlers in the New World during the 1600s. Many of these settlers found homes in and around New York City, where a cartoon drawing of Father Knickerbocker became a prominent symbol of the city. In 1845, baseball's first organized team was nicknamed the Knickerbocker Nine and the name was evoked again in 1946 when New York was granted a franchise in the Basketball Association of America. Team founder Ned Irish reportedly made the decision to call the team the Knickerbockers—supposedly after pulling the name out of a hat.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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When the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season, fans voted on potential nicknames from an original list of 64 possibilities. Thunder was chosen over Renegades, Twisters, and Barons, and the name was extremely well received. The team set sales records for the first day after the nickname was revealed. "There's just all kinds of good thunder images and thoughts, and the in-game experience of Thunder," team chairman Clay Bennett told reporters. The SuperSonics had been named for the Supersonic Transport (SST) project, which had been awarded to Boeing. The company has a large plant in the Seattle area.

Orlando Magic


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When the Orlando Sentinel sponsored a name-the-team contest for Orlando's prospective expansion franchise, Challengers—an allusion to the space shuttle that crashed in 1986—was the most popular suggestion. Other entries included Floridians, Juice, Orbits, Astronauts, Aquamen, and Sentinels, but the panel of judges, including Orlando team officials who reviewed the suggestions, decided to go with Magic. The name is an obvious nod to the tourism-rich city's main attraction, Disney World.

Philadelphia 76ers

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The Syracuse Nationals were relocated to the City of Brotherly Love in 1963 and the team was renamed the 76ers, an allusion to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776.

Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns
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General manager Jerry Colangelo, only 28 at the time, settled on a name for his expansion franchise using a name-the-team contest in 1968. Colangelo chose Suns over Scorpions, Rattlers, and Thunderbirds, among the other suggestions included in the 28,000 entries. One lucky fan won $1,000 and season tickets as part of the contest, which included such obscure entries as White Wing Doves, Sun Lovers, Poobahs, Dudes, and Cactus Giants.

Portland Trail Blazers

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In 1970, Portland was granted an expansion franchise in the NBA and team officials announced a name-the-team contest. Of the more than 10,000 entries, Pioneers was the most popular, but was ruled out because nearby Lewis & Clark College was already using the nickname. Another popular entry was Trail Blazers, whose logo is supposed to represent five players on one team playing against five players from another team.

Sacramento Kings


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The Kings' royal lineage stretches all the way back to the founding of the National Basketball League's Rochester Royals in 1945. The Royals retained their nickname after a move to Cincinnati in 1957 and became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings (soon dropping the Omaha) through a name-the-team contest in 1972. The name remained unchanged when the franchise relocated to California in 1985.

San Antonio Spurs


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A group of San Antonio investors purchased the Dallas Chaparrals from the American Basketball Association in 1973 and decided to hold a public contest to rename the team. Five thousand entries with over 500 names were submitted. After reconsidering their first decision to call the team the Aztecs (several teams already used that name), the judges (investors and local press representatives) settled on Spurs. It may have just been a coincidence that one of the team's main investors, Red McCombs, was born in Spur, Texas.

Toronto Raptors

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The ownership group of Toronto's prospective expansion team conducted extensive marketing research across Canada in 1994 and held a nationwide vote that helped team officials come up with a list of potential nicknames. Raptors, which Jurassic Park helped popularize the year before, was eventually chosen over runners-up Bobcats and Dragons.

Utah Jazz

Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
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No, Utah isn't known for its Jazz. The team originated in New Orleans in 1974 and club officials decided to keep the name after relocating to Salt Lake City in 1979. The Jazz nickname was originally chosen through a name-the-team contest, which produced seven other finalists: Dukes, Crescents, Pilots, Cajuns, Blues, Deltas, and Knights. Deltas would've translated to Salt Lake City rather well (the airline of the same name has a hub there), while Cajuns may have been even worse than Jazz.

Washington Wizards

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In the early 1990s, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin was becoming frustrated with the association of his team's nickname and gun violence. After Pollin's friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, Pollin decided to take action and announced his plans to rename the team. (Though Dan Steinberg of D.C. Sports Bog wrote a very detailed history of the name change, and called into question the impact Rabin's death had on the decision.)

A name-the-team contest was held and fans voted on a list of finalists that included Wizards, Dragons, Express, Stallions, and Sea Dogs. Not long after Wizards was announced as the winning name before the 1997-98 season, the local NAACP chapter president complained that the nickname carried Ku Klux Klan associations. Previous nicknames for the franchise when they were still in Chicago include Packers and Zephyrs.

This post was originally published in 2009.

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Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
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It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
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Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.