(This column was written Jan. 13, 2011)
By Shelly Saltman
I have been a basketball fan from the first moment my dad took me to the Boston Garden. You can imagine what a thrill I had when I was at Cambridge Latin School and we played in the Eastern Massachusetts Tech Tourney.
Over the years, I have reminisced many times with my pal Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe as to what it was like in those early days .I remember well the Syracuse Nationals. The Rochester Royals, the Saint Louis Hawks and the Fort Wayne Piston-Zollners... and the only sneakers we wore were the Chuck Taylor Converse high tops.
Who were those teams? But I am getting ahead of myself.
As most of us know, basketball, America's only original sport, was born in a school gym in Springfield, Mass. With inclement weather, not unlike today, the children, forced to stay indoors, were bored. In order to make school more palatable, Dr. James Naismith, the teacher, hung two peach baskets on either side of a room and invited the children to shoot a ball into it.
From this humble beginning, by the 1920s, there were hundreds of professional basketball teams in cities and towns. It was like a revolving door. Leagues came and went and players switched loyalties like the wind (sound familiar?). Among the early teams were the New York Renaissance Five, the Harlem Globetrotters and the Original Celtics.
In 1946 the Basketball Association of America was formed. The first game was played in Toronto between the Toronto Huskies and the New York Knickerbockers. In 1949 the BBAA became the National Basketball Association (NBA). Today, the NBA has a total of 30 teams and is the top professional league in the world. However, there is talk from the commissioner's office, due to our economic times, about eliminating some of the teams.
But even now, I often wonder if today's fans really know whom they are rooting for. For example, how many lakes are there in Southern California? Surely, not as many as the 10,000 that spawned the name for the Minnesota team that moved its franchise to Los Angeles. Or the team I was originally part of, the New Orleans Jazz. Our name made sense, because the team was in the city where some say jazz was born. Yet, moved to Salt Lake City it would seem reasonable that they would have had a name like the Crossroads, the Utes, or the Saints (in deference to the NFL team)... which are nicknames for Salt lake City.
When we first had the Phoenix Suns, since it was located in the "Valley of the Sun" we ran a contest in which thousands entered. The most prevalent choice was "Suns."
Look at Denver; famous for its gold mining history, "Nuggets" was a perfect choice. Let's look at some of the others and where they have come from.
The Los Angeles Clippers were the Buffalo Braves (Buffalo being located where there are many recognized Indian Tribes) from 1970 to 1978. In 1978, they became the San Diego Clippers ... San Diego historically being noted in the early days as the home of the "long boats", or Clipper ships. In 1984 they became the Los Angeles Clippers. Does it make sense?
Since 1946 the Boston team has been the "Celtics." Good choice since Boston enjoys an extremely large Irish population. The Chicago Bulls were so named because Chicago's Stockyards are the terminus for much of America's beef industry.
Another name that has a history and colorful past is that of the Atlanta Hawks. As one of the original 17 NBA franchises, they started out as the Buffalo Bisons. The name was perfect fit because of the city's name. However, after only 13 games into the inaugural season, owner Ben Kerner, an Illinois native, moved the team to Moline in the Tri-cities area. Moline located on the banks of the Mississippi made up this area with Rock Island, Ill and Davenport, Iowa. The team was thus named the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, (note: the famous Blackhawk Wars were fought in this region.)
It was here that in 1949 the league first met Red Auerbach as a playoff coach. In 1951, they moved to Milwaukee, becoming the Milwaukee Hawks....then in 1955 until 1968, they were located in St. Louis. The St. Louis Hawks along with the Boston Celtics much like the Lakers and the Celtics of today were perennial playoff contenders and champions. Today, in Atlanta I do not know if a Hawk of the flying variety has been spotted.
Heat is a great name for the Miami team, just as Magic fits well in Orlando, because of Disney's Magic Kingdom. Bobcats fits well in Charlotte, but I do not think their predecessor's name Hornets has been that good a fit in New Orleans for the past eight years. Nor do I think Grizzlies is the right name for Memphis since 2001. It worked well in Vancouver since there are many such bears residing there, but not in Tennessee.
The Indiana Pacers name is a perfect fit. Located where the Indy 500 is run and the pace car plays an important role, the name came with the team in 1976 when the ABA was folded into the NBA. Also coming from the ABA in 1976 was the New Jersey Nets. They had previously been the New Jersey Americans and the New York Nets in the ABA. For one year, 1976 they were the New York Nets until they became the New Jersey Nets. A perfect moniker for a basketball team, but also a homogenous name that in the New York Metropolitan Area easily fits with the Mets of baseball and the Jets of football. Just as the name Raptors fits the Toronto team. A bird of prey, the Raptor is indigenous to that area of Canada and since 1995 has preyed on NBA opponents. The San Diego Rockets name ironically fit better in 1971 when they were moved to Houston, the home of NASA and rocketry.
Dallas made a good choice of their name in 1980 when they selected Mavericks. After all, among the dictionary definitions of maverick is "a free spirit, or an informal cowboy." Located in cow country it was an obvious choice.
There was an earlier Dallas team called the Spurs... also a good name. This team in the old ABA was the Chaparrals, but when they moved to San Antonio in 1973, they became the Spurs and kept the name from 1976 when they joined the NBA. The Trailblazers of Lewis and Clark fame since 1970 should never leave Portland. However, how does the Harford Trailblazers sound? HUH! Or for that matter, can you picture the Providence Timberwolves if ever the Minnesota franchise is moved?
The Golden State Warriors had been the Philadelphia Warriors since 1946, which moved in 1962 to the Bay Area becoming the San Francisco Warriors. The Syracuse Nationals in 1963 became the 76ers, a perfect name fit for when Philadelphia replaced them.
I wonder if the Washington Wizards fans really know whom they are rooting for. If they cheered for the Chicago Packers in 1961, the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962, the Baltimore Bullets for a decade beginning in 1963, the Capital Bullets in 1973, the Washington Bullets in 1974 and since 1997, Washington Wizards, then they really know their team.
The New York Knickerbockers since 1946 are simply called the Knicks. Oklahoma Thunder, a good name since 2008, chosen for the weather pattern of the area. Thank goodness they didn't keep "Supersonics" when they moved from Seattle. Although sometimes Thunder does sound like a sonic boom. Milwaukee Bucks is a good name, because of the large moose/ elk/ deer population of the area.
Ah, the Sacramento Kings, housed in California since 1985 truly have a regal history. From 1948 and for nine years, as the Rochester Royals, they were one of the NBA's premier franchises. For twelve years after that, as the Cincinnati Royals with great players like Oscar Robertson they carried on the tradition. For three years 1972- 1975, they played an equal amount of games in Kansas City and Omaha. They yearn for the good old days of Rochester, N Y.
Probably my favorite story about a name change and one that truly fits is the Detroit Pistons. From 1948-1957, they were the Fort Wayne Zollner-Pistons. Fred Zollner, a local piston manufacturer wanted notoriety and publicity for his product. Thus he invested in his own team never realizing that when moved to the Motor City of Detroit, all the team had to do was drop the Zollner and Pistons looked as if it was specifically named to be part of the city's landscape.
In my next column I hope to have enlightening fun with the NFL.