Where did NBA team names originate from? A short history of how they came to be

NBA team names often puzzle Europeans with their unusualness and naming patterns in Europe are quite unsurprisingly different.

Take European football (soccer) for example, team names can consist of just a single word, which is usually the name of the town, city or a neighborhood it’s located it. Moreover, if the name is consisted of more than one word, than it is usually the city name that comes second, whereas with NBA teams the name of the city comes first. British teams are an exception in Europe, as the name of the city comes first (Manchester United, as opposed to Real Madrid).

Where Did NBA Teams Get Their Names?

While there are a few British teams with names that are could pass for NBA franchises, like Queens Park Rangers or Wolverhampton Wanderers, names like Timberwolves, Kings and Supersonics, sound quite odd for the European ear. So, let’s take a look at where some of these names come from and what they represent. We’re sure you’ve heard most of these stories before, but there are some which you may have must, and they are interesting anyway.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a rather historic, patriotic name, given after the year in which the American Declaration of Independence was signed (1776). On the other hand, despite the fact that American is a Republic, the team from Sacramento bears the name Kings, but there’s no direct inference to any actual kings or other royalty, so as of this post, we’re not sure of the history behind the Sacramento Kings moniker.

The famed New York Knicks have one of the most interesting team names, and not a lot of people, even New Yorkers know the full story behind the name and its actual significance.

The word Knicks is actually short for knickerbockers which refers to the type of trousers worn by Dutch immigrants in the late 19th century. The name has no direct significance or connection to basketball, the Dutch migrated and settled in what was called “New Amsterdam” in that period, so it may not seem like something of any relevance nowadays, the story behind the name of the New York Knicks is a very interesting one.

While Knicks may not have a lot do with basketball, the neighboring team has a name that has everything to do with basketball – yes, we’re talking of the Brooklyn Nets, a team previously known as the New Jersey Nets. This name requires little digging as it has everything to do with basketball. It’s the most generic basketball name in the NBA.

The name of Detroit Pistons evolved from the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, named after the owner of the Piston manufacturing company – Frank Zollner, hence Zollner Pistons. The name remained, even if the team is no longer owned by Zollner and his company Piston. Luckily the team moved to a city where pistons actually translated to the local industry — the Motor City.

Songs of Fire and Water

Sometimes, teams moved states and cities but keep their old names, despite the fact they are no longer applicable once they move. The Los Angeles Lakers are the most obvious example of a franchise moving cross-country to a state and city that couldn’t have been more different. The name makes no sense as there are no lakes in Los Angeles or the surrounding region, but the club actually played in Minneapolis in the early days. And as you may know, Minneapolis is located near the Great Lakes and is well-known for the baker’s dozen of lakes within the state’s borders.

The Lakers aren’t the only name inspired by the geography of the state where the team is based.

The Miami Heat is another such example. In the case of the Heat, the name obviously refers to the high  temperatures and humidity found across the state of Florida. As you probably know, there is some heavy heat in South Florida during the summer.

That’s not it, the league has another name that refers to the temperature – the Phoenix Suns. As you know, there is a lot of sun in the desert. The city itself has a pretty unique name, based on a myth, the myth of the Phoenix bird which always rises from its ashes. The story of phoenix features in many books, films and even video games. In fact, there’s even a video slot game called Secrets of the Phoenix.

One of the stories with the most interesting twist is the one behind the franchise team name Houston Rockets. The team was originally based in San Diego, so they were known as the San Diego Rockets, which was an odd choice as there wasn’t any connection to space or travel or missiles in San Diego. So when the team then moved to Houston, the hometown of NASA’s mission control, suddenly the name Rockets made a lot of sense.


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