Team Names in the NBA—How They Got That Way

By Harvey Frommer, Contributor
May 21, 2015 Updated: May 21, 2015    

With the NBA playoffs in full swing, the names of teams are there for all to see and read and talk about. How they got that way is always a source of interest. What follows is just a small sampling of team nicknames and how and why they came to be.

The Knicks and the Celtics are the only teams still playing in the National Basketball Association in their original cities. The name Knickerbockers dates back to when New York was New Amsterdam, and the city’s Dutch settlers wore trousers bunched up at the knee known as “knickers.”

The name Celtics was given to Boston in 1946 by Walter Brown, the founder of the franchise. “We’ll call them the Boston Celtics,” he said. “The name has a great basketball tradition, especially when you think of the original ‘Celtics’ team. Boston is full of Irishmen; so we’ll put the players in green uniforms and call them the Boston Celtics after their Celtic ancestors.”

The Atlanta Hawks were once the St. Louis Hawks, and before that they were the Milwaukee Hawks. Even before that in 1948, they were the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. The three cities referred to Moline, Illinois; Rock Island, Illinois; and Davenport, Iowa. Way back in 1831, the Blackhawk War was fought in that tri-cities area, and that’s how the original Blackhawk’s nickname, later shortened to Hawks, came to be.

The Rochester Royals played in the NBA for nine seasons and then transferred to Cincinnati. The name Royals was kept. In 1972, the franchise moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and the name was dropped to avoid confusion in the Kansas City area as the Kansas City and the Omaha baseball teams both used the name Royals. The new name for the NBA basketball franchise became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings and, in 1975, simply the Kansas City Kings. A decade later, when the team moved to California, they became the Sacramento Kings.

Not many people realize that the Denver Nuggets were charter members of the NBA. But that team only lasted one season. When the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association came into the NBA, they had to change their name because the Houston Rockets already existed. So the Denver franchise took the “Nuggets” name of the original franchise, which was appropriate for an area with a history of gold and silver mining of nuggets.

Charlotte, Miami, Minnesota and Orlando all have interesting “name” stories. Originally, the Charlotte team was named the Spirit, but that didn’t go over too well. It was soon dropped, and a contest was launched among fans to come up with a new name. Runner-up names included: the Charlotte Gold, the Charlotte Knights, and incredibly the original name – the Charlotte Spirit. As every NBA fan knows, the winning name was the Charlotte Hornets.

Miami also held a name-the-team contest and received more than 5,000 entries. Some of the names that didn’t make it included such choices as Palm Trees, Beaches, Suntan, and Shade. Heat beat them all out. As one clever official explained, “When you think of Miami, heat is what comes to mind.”

Over 6,000 entries were part of the quest for the Minnesota team name. The choice came down to Timberwolves vs. Polars. Timberwolves easily won. That animal is native to Minnesota, and no other professional sports team ever thought to use the name.

The Orlando Sentinel sponsored a name-the-team contest in that Florida city. As with Minnesota, the competition came down to two names: Magic and Juice. Orlando general manager Pat Williams explained why Magic won out: “Magic is synonymous with the Orlando area. We have the Magic Kingdom in Disneyworld, and the tourism slogan here is ‘Come to the Magic.'”  

What’s in an NBA name? Quite a lot!

Dr. Harvey Frommer is in his 39th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: best-selling “New York City Baseball, 1947-1957″ and best-selling “Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball,” his acclaimed Remembering Yankee Stadium was published in 2008 and best-selling Remembering Fenway Park was published to acclaim in 2011.

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