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Name that team: How major pro sports franchises came by their names

A look at the origins of team nicknames in the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball and the NHL.

December 14, 2013|By Jim Peltz
  • Los Angeles' NBA teams kept their watery nicknames when moving from San Diego and Minneapolis.
Los Angeles' NBA teams kept their watery nicknames when moving from… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The origin of pro team nicknames ranges from local tradition to fan contests. Here's a snapshot of how the teams in the NBA, MLB, NFL and the NHL got their names, with help from the website


Atlanta Hawks — Initially named the Blackhawks like Chicago's hockey team, after the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk. It was shortened to Hawks when the team moved to Milwaukee in 1951; the team moved to St. Louis in 1955 and Atlanta in 1968.

Boston Celtics — Team owner Walter Brown picked the name Celtics in 1946; he liked the winning tradition of the Irish name because the New York Celtics were successful in the 1920s.

Brooklyn Nets — Early on the team, which started in the American Basketball Assn., played in New York and the name rhymed two other teams in the city, the Jets and Mets. The NBA team kept the name when it moved to New Jersey before the 1977-78 season, a year after the ABA was absorbed into the NBA in a merger, and when it moved to Brooklyn before the 2012-13 season.

Charlotte Bobcats — It was one of three name-the-team finalists for Charlotte's 2004 expansion franchise, and owner Bob Johnson was fond of the winning name.

Chicago Bulls — As a new franchise in 1966, team owner Richard Klein was considering Matadors and Toreadors when his young son reportedly said, "Dad, that's a bunch of bull," and the name stuck.

Cleveland Cavaliers — The nickname was chosen by fans in a 1970 poll by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

Dallas Mavericks — After a name-the-team contest, the finalists were given to then-owner Donald Carter, who chose Mavericks over Wranglers and Express.

Denver Nuggets — As an ABA team, Denver was known as the Rockets. The name was changed in 1974 in anticipation of the merger with the NBA, whose Houston franchise already was called the Rockets. A name-the-team contest resulted in the Nuggets, a nod to the city's mining tradition.

Detroit Pistons — Obviously fitting for the Motor City. But the team traces its roots to Fort Wayne, Ind., where they began life as the Zollner Pistons; owner Fred Zollner supplied pistons for auto companies. When the club moved to Detroit in 1957, Zollner was dropped from the nickname.

Golden State Warriors — The team originally was the Philadelphia Warriors and kept the name first when it moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s. When the club moved to Oakland in 1971, the team was renamed the Golden State Warriors.

Houston Rockets — Originally the team played in San Diego and Rockets was chosen from a name-the-team contest (Atlas rockets were built there). And when the team moved to Houston in 1971, keeping the name made sense because Houston is home base to NASA.

Indiana Pacers — The team's original investors came up with the name, according to one of them, lawyer Richard D. Tinkham. It refers to the state's harness-racing pacers and the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. Initially it was thought the team might play throughout the state, hence the use of Indiana instead of Indianapolis.

Clippers — Initially the team was the NBA's Buffalo Braves; the nickname Clippers, adopted when it moved to San Diego in 1978, referred to the sailing ships in San Diego Bay. When owner Donald Sterling relocated the team to Los Angeles in 1984, he kept the name.

Lakers — When the Detroit Gems were moved to Minneapolis before the 1947-48 season, they settled on Lakers because of Minnesota's thousands of lakes. The name was kept after the team moved to Los Angeles before the 1960-61 season.

Memphis Grizzlies — Initially located in Vancouver, the club chose the Grizzlies — a species indigenous to the area — from a name-the-team contest. When the team relocated to Memphis before the 2001-02 season, Memphis-based FedEx reportedly was prepared to offer $120 million to change the name to the Express, but the NBA rejected the offer.

Miami Heat — When the team was awarded an expansion franchise to start play in 1988, the Heat — appropriate for South Florida — was chosen from a name-the-team contest.

Milwaukee Bucks — Selected from a name-the-team contest in 1968, apropos to the hunting tradition in Wisconsin.

Minnesota Timberwolves — The result of a name-the-team contest in 1986 for the new franchise. The most popular entry was Blizzard, but the team wanted a nickname more unique to the state.

New Orleans Pelicans — The team originated in Charlotte and a name-the-team contest resulted in Hornets; during the Revolutionary War a British commander reportedly referred to the area around Charlotte as a nest of hornets. The name stuck when the club moved to New Orleans but was changed last April to the Pelicans.

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