4 weird origins of NBA team names
Some of the team names in the National Basketball League (NBA) are fairly straightforward about their origins. It doesn’t take a team historian, for instance, to explain why the team in Phoenix – a city known for its hot desert climate – is called the Suns, or why the team in Orlando – famously the home of Walt Disney World – is called the Magic.
Other team names require a slight leap to understand, whether because of an odd fan vote or a change in home city. For instance, the Los Angeles Lakers play in a part of California not particularly known for its lakes. The team, of course, only came to southern California in 1960 from Minneapolis, Minnesota, having taken its name from the Minnesota state nickname, ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’.
Several of the team names, however, have a slightly more involved story. Some of the team names below might seem obvious at first, but have a deeper history that is more complex than you’d expect.
1. ‘Knicks’ is an obscure literary reference
No one wears knickerbockers anymore, but most people – including many Knicks fans, I suspect – know what they are, or were. Knickerbockers, loose-fitting breeches, usually gathered at the knees, were once men’s sporting clothing of choice in the late 19th century. However, the knickerbocker in question here is actually Diedrich Knickerbocker, a pseudonym used by author Washington Irving for his satirical work History of New York. The fictitious Knickerbocker became a term used to refer to the descendants of Dutch settlers living in New York City, eventually referring to New Yorkers more broadly. As it turns out, the knickerbocker piece of clothing is also a descendent of Irving’s satire, due to similarities between the illustrations of Dutch clothing in the book and the popular sporting wear.
2. ‘Mavericks’ refers to unbranded cattle
Maverick is a very Texan sort of word – not only in basketball, but also in origin. The word maverick – today usually meaning ‘an unorthodox or independent-minded person’ – actually started out referring to an ‘unbranded calf or yearling’. The reason dates back to Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), a US politician and the owner of a large herd of cattle in Texas. Maverick, apparently due to a lack of interest in cattle ranching, declined to brand his cattle, which meant that during the spring roundup many of his cattle escaped, were caught by his neighbors, branded, and called mavericks.
3. ‘Jazz’ is a baseball word
Prior to being in Salt Lake City, the Jazz were formerly based in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. And while jazz music was no doubt one of the name’s connotations, according to nba.com, the team name was chosen with the intent of highlighting the word’s sense of ‘collective improvisation’. The tangled history of the word jazz is one that took lexicographers some time to uncover. Basketball fans might be surprised to learn that jazz actually started out in the sports world; specifically, in the 1912 season of the Pacific Coast League. Back then, the word was slang in baseball circles meaning ‘energy, excitement, or “pep”’, as in the use by Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson, referring to his newly invented pitch the ‘jazz ball’: ‘I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it’. For more on the long, wild history of the word jazz, turn to this rundown by Dave Wilton.
4. ‘Raptor’ refers to more than just a dinosaur
More than anything else, it was probably due to the popularity of the 1993 film Jurassic Park (just released a few years beforehand) that the new NBA expansion team in Toronto was dubbed the Raptors prior to the 1995-96 season. Raptor, of course, is the shortened version of Velociraptor, the small dinosaur of the Cretaceous period, thrust into the popular imagination by Jurassic Park. The scientific name Velociraptor comes from the Latin words velox (veloc-), meaning ‘swift’, and raptor, a word meaning ‘plunderer, robber, ravisher, abductor’, as well as referring to a ‘bird of prey’. While you want to promote your players’ skills at causing turnovers, you might not want to promote that talent alone.