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The Origins of All 30 NBA Team Names

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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

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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

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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. 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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

The first version of this post was published in 2009.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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