Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks have been around over the years. Before Atlanta, this franchise called four other American cities home. So the team name "Hawks" has absolutely nothing to do with Atlanta or the state of Georgia. When the Buffalo Bisons moved to Moline, Illinois in 1946 they became known as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, named after the Black Hawk War that was fought mostly in the team's new state back in 1832. It's probably no coincidence that Chicago's hockey team is also named the Blackhawks. By the time the franchise was moved to Milwaukee, it was shortened to Hawks, and that name stuck through a brief stint in St. Louis and continues on today in Atlanta.
Boston Celtics – When Walter Brown decided to bring a professional basketball team to Boston in 1946 he had a tough time coming up with a team nickname. According to Celtics.com, Brown was having a discussion with a member of the Boston Garden's publicity staff in which they threw around some relatively bad ideas like "Whirlwinds" and "Unicorns" before Brown came up with "Celtics," seemingly out of nowhere. There had been a barnstorming hoops team out of New York that went by that name in the 1920s, so he liked that it was a pre-established name in the basketball world, plus to this day Boston has the largest Irish population of any major city in the United States. Sixty-three years and seventeen championships later, that's still the name they're using. Hard to imagine Kevin Garnett in a Boston Unicorns jersey, right?
Charlotte Bobcats – As the NBA's most recent expansion team, many of can remember bits and pieces about the naming of the Charlotte franchise. "Bobcats" was one of three finalists, along with "Dragons" and "Flight," but it was eventually chosen not only because Robert "Bob" Johnson was the team owner, but also because bobcats are indigenous to North Carolina, evoke images of speed and agility, and tie-in with the area's NFL cat-themed team, the Carolina Panthers.
Chicago Bulls – Richard Klein, the team's first owner, kicked around a lot of ideas for his new basketball franchise before eventually arriving at "Bulls," but he knew he wanted something that sounded powerful and also tied into the city's history as the meat-packing capitol of the country. He had considered both Matadors and Toreadors as possibilities when his son Mark responded, "Dad, that's a bunch of bull," which inspired the perfect team nickname to fulfill his criteria. The Chicago Matadors do exist today, though not as symbols of strength and power—they're a group of grossly overweight men that dance and entertain during timeouts at Bulls games.
Cleveland Cavaliers – When Nick Mileti, owner and founder of the new Cleveland basketball franchise, was given an expansion team in 1970 he held a contest so the fans could choose the team nickname. "Cavaliers" was the winner, seemingly for alliterative reasons. The earliest logo was of an Englishman donning a saber.
Detroit Pistons – In the franchise's earliest days the team was based out of Fort Wayne, Indiana and was known as the Zollner Pistons. If you're wondering what the heck a Zollner Piston is, you need look no further than the team's owner at the time, a man named Frank Zollner who manufactured pistons for cars, trucks, and trains. Coincidentally, Zollner was instrumental in the creation of the NBA from smaller leagues like the BAA and NBL. When the team moved to Detroit in 1957 because Fort Wayne just wasn't going to be a profitable city, "Pistons" still seemed like a logical team name considering the Detroit's strong history in the automobile industry.
Indiana Pacers – Picking the name "Pacers" was reportedly a pretty easy decision for the six investors that bought a franchise for the ABA in 1967, mostly because the city of Indianapolis was known for harness racing and stock car racing, both of which had pacers (or a pace car in the case of the Indy 500). One of the six investors, Chuck Barnes, was the business manager of Mario Andretti and other big race car drivers, and it was his wife that suggested the name "Pacers" over dinner one night. The real debate in naming this team was whether it should be called the Indiana Pacers or the Indianapolis Pacers. Because one of the early gimmicks for the team was to play home games all over the state and not just its capitol, "Indiana" won the final vote.
Miami HEAT – Like a lot of other NBA teams, the HEAT held a contest to get ideas from fans. There were a lot of options to choose from, including Sharks, Barracudas, Beaches, Flamingos (can you imagine those uniforms?), and others. In the end, "HEAT" was chosen because the investment group just liked it best. Sometimes that's all the story there really is. Plus, you know, it can get really hot in South Beach.
Milwaukee Bucks – More than 14,000 basketball fans submitted ideas for team names in 1968, but several of those entries came back with "Bucks," even though one man from Whitefish Bay was the one that took home the prize—a brand spankin' new car. It's not hard to guess why so many Wisconsinites would've chosen that particular name since deer hunting is an extremely popular activity in that state. Plus, bucks bring to mind visions of strength and grace—not the worst qualities to expect from a basketball team.
New Jersey Nets – Originally based out of New York and known as the New York Americans in the old ABA, the franchise switched the name to "Nets" in their second year of existence. Such a change seems naturally considering it was, after all, a basketball team, however choosing that name wasn't done just because nets are the thing the basketball goes through; it was also chosen to rhyme with two other New York area sports teams—football's New York Jets, and baseball's New York Mets.
New York Knicks – The name "Knicks" is short for "Knickerbockers," which are the knee-length pants Dutch settlers wore when they originally settled the New York area in the 1600s. Over the years a character named Father Knickerbocker—a man with a cotton wig, three-pointed hat, and of course those famous pantaloons—became a symbol of New York City, so when a group of men affiliated with the new basketball franchise threw their ideas for team names into a hat, almost all of them came back "Knickerbockers." It also helped that in the mid-1800s when the original New York Knickerbockers became the first organized professional baseball team in history. The city was already familiar with the name, making "Knicks" about as close a sure thing as the franchise has ever had. Except for maybe taking Patrick Ewing with the first overall pick in 1985.
Orlando Magic – An area-wide contest brought the decision down to two names—"Magic" and "Juice." In the end a panel of local community leaders chose the former because the word magic works its way into the Orlando area in quite a few different regards. There's the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, for one, and if that weren't enough the city's tourism slogan is "Come to the Magic." While "Juice" (presumably referencing Florida orange juice) sounds more delicious, It probably would've been considerably less marketable. But I suppose handing out free Tropicana when the team scores 100 points is healthier than a Taco Bell softshell or a Big Mac.
Philadelphia 76ers – For anybody that's ever been to Philadelphia, the year 1776 is just about the most important year in that city's history. That was the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, and since Independence Hall and its Liberty Bell are the city's most recognizable symbols, naming the team the 76ers ("Sixers" for short) only made sense. That name was the result of a contest held in 1963 when the team moved to Philly, so credit a man named Walt Stahlberg for the moniker. Before moving to the City of Brotherly Love, the Sixers were based in Syracuse, New York and known as the Nationals.
Toronto Raptors – An expansion team in 1993, the Raptors held a nationwide contest to name the new franchise. Over 2,000 entries were narrowed down to ten finalists: Beavers, Bobcats, Dragons, Grizzlies, Hogs, Raptors, Scorpions, T-Rex, Tarantulas, and Terriers. Several of those are extremely lame (Terriers? That's supposed to intimidate opponents?), but the final choice—Raptors—was heavily inspired by the incredible commercial success of the film "Jurassic Park," which introduced the world to the frightening dinosaur known as the Velociraptor. Canadian basketball fans should all be thankful there wasn't a $900 million dollar movie that summer about Beavers.
Washington Wizards – Originally based in Chicago and known as the "Packers" (think meat-packing) and then the "Zephyrs" (for no reason I can understand), the team moved to Baltimore in 1963 and became known as the "Bullets," a name they'd keep for the next 34 years. There was a Baltimore Bullets team in the 1940s and 1950s, named after a nearby foundry that produced ammunition during World War II, and this new franchise revived the nickname. In 1995, however, Washington owner Abe Pollin announced an upcoming team name change as part of an anti-violence movement. He felt as though "Bullets" had attained negative undertones over the years, and that it was an inappropriate nickname, especially in the city where the President lives. A naming contest for fans resulted in "Wizards," chosen mostly because it sounded good. It beat out other finalists "Dragons," "Express," "Stallions" and "Sea Dogs."