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Berry Tramel  


NBA: Playing the name change game

by Berry Tramel Published: December 13, 2012

Truehoop blog ran an item Wednesday about a Chinese basketball game matching Tracy McGrady and Stephon Marbury. You can read it here, if you’re interested. But what jumped out at me was the name of McGrady’s team. The Beijing Ducks.

Yes, named after the Chinese dish. Except I’ve never heard of Beijing duck. I’ve heard of Peking duck. The Chinese, channeling their old Soviet pals, changed the name of their flagship city decades ago. When I was a kid, it was Peking. Then it became Beijing, sort of the way the Russians kept going back and forth with Saint Petersburg. Nobody in Russia ever really calls it Saint Petersburg, they just call it Petersburg, maybe because it wasn’t named for the real Saint Pete, it was named for Tsar Peter the Great, who isn’t likely to achieve sainthood anytime soon. St. Petersburg became Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in 1924 and went back to Petersburg in 1991.

Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, in Aransas Wildlife Refuge, Texas. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, in Aransas Wildlife Refuge, Texas. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

But I digress. The whole concept of name changes is relevant to the NBA, especially with the Hornets in town Wednesday. The name that forever will be remembered in Oklahoma City is about to go bye-bye. Or at least East. The Hornets plan to change their name to the New Orleans Pelicans.

It’s sound theory. If you can’t change your backcourt, change your name and get everyone’s mind off the backcourt. If Chris Paul and David West still were sending New Orleans into the second round of the NBA playoffs, like they did in 2008, then nobody would even think to change the name. But CP3 and West are long gone, and so soon will be the Hornet name birthed by George Shinn back in Charlotte.

Which brings us to the Bobcats. Charlotte’s replacement for when Shinn took his franchise to New Orleans. Michael Jordan, who now runs the Bobcats, mostly into the ground, said he would consider taking the Hornet name back. The NBA in Charlotte flourished in the early days of the Hornets — a cautionary tale for OKC and any other thriving city; things don’t automatically stay swell, you have to keep on top of things. That would be funky, the Charlotte Bobcats reverting back to the Charlotte Hornets, because the New Orleans Hornets dropped the name, not in favor of Jazz, the original New Orleans name, but Pelicans, which frankly has its charms. I assume the good folks in Salt Lake City and are not keen on giving up the Jazz name that had no business ever leaving New Orleans for Utah.

I know, it’s all very confusing if you haven’t been following along.

Much less confusing is the other NBA name change, and much more charming, just to be frank. The Brooklyn Nets now adorn the league, and what a wondrous addition to the major-league landscape. Not since 1957, when the Dodgers made their final Ebbets Field appearance, has the Brooklyn name been spotted in major league standings. But the Netropolitans — my ode to the Metropolitans, who never use their Christian name and instead just coarsely call themselves the Mets — moved from New Jersey to the glittering Barclays Center this season and now claim the Brooklyn name.

I think it’s fantastic. Of course, I’m the guy who for 15 years has been clamoring for major league baseball to move a team to Brooklyn. Maybe I’m a marketing man at heart.

The Brooklyn moniker made me think of other teams that ought to use non-traditional names. Most always, teams have used their city name or their state name. The Colts, for instance, are Indianapolis. The Pacers are Indiana. The Nuggets and Broncos are Denver; the Rockies and Avalanche are Colorado. The Cowboys play in Arlington and are Dallas; the Rangers play in Arlington and are Texas. All the Minneapolis teams are Minnesota. The St. Paul team, hockey’s Wild, are Minnesota, too.

But not all stay with the city or state. The NFL Panthers play in Charlotte, but hard by the North Carolina/South Carolina line. Hence, the Carolina Panthers. The NFL Buccaneers play in Tampa and the baseball Rays play in St. Petersburg, and I don’t mean Leningrad, but both call themselves Tampa Bay, which brings in the whole region.

The Giants and Jets used to play in New York, the Giants at Yankee Stadium, the Jetropolitans at Shea Stadium (and heck, even the Polo Grounds). Then they moved to New Jersey and remained the New Yorks. Makes you appreciate the New Jersey Nets and the New Jersey Devils.

The Patriots moved to the Boston suburbs and decided to market the whole region. Thus the New England Patriots. That made their dalliance with Connecticut awhile back more bearable. Move to Hartford, and you still don’t have to change the name. Of course, if you follow the Jets and Giants lead, the Patriots could move to Delaware and still call themselves New England.

The NBA Warriors use the regal name of Golden State. Classy. They once were the San Francisco Warriors but now play in Oakland. Probably would chap Oakland if it didn’t already have the Raiders and the Athletics. Strange twist, Oakland supports the Warriors wonderfully with fan attendance, better than deserved, but has been lukewarm to the Raiders and A’s.

The Washington Wizards once were the Capital Bullets, after moving from Baltimore. But Capital didn’t last long, and neither did Bullets.

Teams are slow to try the New England/Golden State gamble. Before they were the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, they were the St. Louis Hawks. And before they were the St. Louis Hawks, they were the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Based in Moline, Ill., along the Mississippi River that forms the Iowa/Illinois line, the area was known as the Tri-Cities, since Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Ill., also were congruent cities. The franchise didn’t last — it moved to St. Louis — and heck, neither did the name of the region. Bettendorf, Iowa, grew and now it’s called Quad Cities.

Even when a franchise played in two cities, it was loath to get creative. The Kings once split time between Kansas City and Omaha; they called themselves the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, maybe because they thought how goofy Tri-Cities sounded.

Of course, you’ve got to be careful. Sometimes the name can get silly. In 1922 and 1923, an NFL team was based in LaRue, Ohio, population less than 1,000. Jim Thorpe played on it. Called themselves the Oorang Indians, after the owner’s chain of Oorang dog kennels. The league has come a long way.

But there’s still room for creative naming.

I like the use of regions or boroughs or even neighborhoods. For instance, the great Negro League team, the Homestead Grays, Josh Gibson’s squad, which played in the Homestead area of Pittsburgh. If we ever get another major league franchise, hockey or something, I vote for Bricktown.

Who could use a name change? Let’s start with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They were born the Los Angeles Angels, became the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels, then tricked the city of Anaheim and now are the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a dastardly name if ever there was one. You’re fooling no one, Angels. You’re not Los Angeles. It takes about 75 minutes to drive to LA from Anaheim, unless you go in the middle of the night.

Here’s a solution. Orange County Angels. Now there’s a cool name. There’s the New England Patriots of baseball.

If the White Sox really wanted to declare a Chicago turf war, how about changing their name to the Southside White Sox? Hockey’s Islanders are moving to Brooklyn, so it’s all moot, but they could have been the Long Island whatevers lo these many years. The NFL Cardinals really don’t know who they are — they came to St. Louis as the Phoenix Cardinals and switched to the Arizona Cardinals, all the while with the same logo and color scheme from their St. Louis days. Flip on a Ram-Cardinal game today, and I swear, first thing you think is St. Louis-LA. So how about a total team makeover. New colors. New uniforms. New coach. New quarterback. New ownership would be best of all. But new name. The Valley Cardinals. Or the Valley Iguanas. Whatever.

The NFL Bills are slowly breaking their Buffalo ties. Starting to play some games in Toronto. How about the Niagara Bills. Or the Border Bills. Might as well milk the Canadian market.

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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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