Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing; the team could move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it.”
Still, we persist in pouring our heart and soul into following our teams. So, in all this devotion, have you ever wondered where some of those beloved team names come from? Some are obvious geographic matches, like baseball’s Texas Rangers or football’s Miami Dolphins. And, there’s also the historical angle, like the New England Patriots or the San Francisco (gold rush) 49ers. But, what about those real head-scratchers? We’ve got the answers. Did your team make the list?
The Lakers have long been a marquee team in Southern California. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar kicked the glam factor into high gear in the 1980s as they led the “Showtime” Lakers to five titles, with actor Jack Nicholson as a court-side fixture. But, have you ever wondered: What is a laker?
Is it “a person associated with a lake,” like our definition implies. Seems unlikely within the context of the sunny skies, lazy beaches, and palm trees in SoCal, right? Wrong! Actually, Minneapolis was the original home for this team, and with Minnesota being the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” it’s clear to see how the name fits. When they moved to much warmer climates in the 1960 off-season, their team name moved, too.
The Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn (along with the New York Giants) to become the Los Angeles Dodgers (and San Francisco Giants) in 1958. Well, we know what a giant is, but what the heck is a dodger?
According to team history, back in the day (late 1800s), the Brooklyn team was referred to as the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, because of the many trolleys on tracks that ran along the streets of the borough. If you didn’t dodge them, you were in for a world of pain. The team name was eventually shortened to just Dodgers.
Our Canadian readers will know what canuck means: “a term used to refer to a Canadian, especially a French Canadian.” And, even though this can be a slightly offensive term it became the team’s name.
According to Mental Floss, “Johnny Canuck, who originally appeared as a Canadian political cartoon character in 1869, was reinvented as a comic book action hero who fought Adolf Hitler, among other villains, during World War II. Canuck [soon became] slang for Canadian, making Vancouver’s hockey team the Canadian equivalent of the New York Yankees, with a little less money.”
Celtic is “a branch of the Indo-European family of languages, including especially Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton, which survive now in Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, and Brittany.” Their NBA website credits team-founder Walter Brown with the creation of this name.
Apparently, he and a Boston Garden publicity staffer were discussing team names in the summer of 1946. Among the names tossed around were Whirlwinds, Unicorns, and Olympics. (The Boston Unicorns?) Anyway, Brown threw out the name Celtics (pronounced with a soft C), and it stuck. “Boston is full of Irishmen. We’ll put them in green uniforms and call them the Boston Celtics,” the NBA quotes him. And, so they did.
In 1998, the Tampa Bay Rays started out life in the big leagues as the Devil Rays. A memorable tag to be sure. While some team names exist simultaneously in different sports (like the popular Cardinals and Giants), there was only one team called the Devil Rays in the four major professional sports.
Their name was chosen in a fan contest, but not everyone liked it. Mental Floss quoted a Tampa columnist as saying: “So far, I’ve fielded about 20 phone calls protesting Devil Rays, and most of the callers have described themselves as Christians who are upset about the word devil.” By 2007, they shortened it to Rays, emphasizing sunshine over aquatic species (and you know, Satan).
What does the scenic, picturesque state of Utah have to do with jazz? Other than having residents who might enjoy that style of music, not a lot. But, the team originally played their games in New Orleans, birthplace of jazz, and there’s that geographical connection. New Orleans + Jazz = logical.
This team’s name has everything to do with timing. Prior to their 1995 on-court debut, a national contest was held to choose the team name (seems like a lot of these team names are picked this way), and Raptors was the winner. It was short for those really bad dudes, the velociraptors. The name was influenced by the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. Sports Illustrated says the name was almost dropped recently, perhaps because it sounds a bit dated due to the movie influence. But, it wasn’t, and the Raptors play on, making it to the 2018–19 NBA finals for the first time in the history of the team.
This team was originally called the Baltimore Bullets in 1946 (named for a nearby ammo factory). However, in 1996, the team’s owner wanted a new nickname that didn’t have an unintended connection to violence (bullets = guns) and selected Wizards. Their NBA website says, “The name depicts energy and an omnipresent power, and brings to light what is hoped to be the wise and magical nature of the team.” Magical, indeed.
A Knickerbocker is a long-running nickname for a New Yorker, originally referring a descendant of the original Dutch settlers of New York. The name comes from Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious author of Washington Irving’s (you know, of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” fame) 1809 History of New York.
The Knicks NBA website explains: “Through history, the Dutch settler “Knickerbocker” character became synonymous with New York City. The city’s most popular symbol of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was ‘Father Knickerbocker,’ complete with cotton wig, three-cornered hat, buckled shoes, and, of course, knickered pants.”
By the mid-1800s, this style of pants came to be called knickerbockers (shortened to knickers), apparently because they looked like the knee breeches the Dutch wore in illustrations of Irving’s History of New York.
The Knickerbockers was chosen as a fitting— if now unfashionable—representation of New York when they were founded in 1946.
The New York Mets played their first season in the National League in 1962, and it wasn’t the most auspicious debut. Losing 120 of their 160 games, surprisingly the team would go on to win the World Series just seven years later. But, back to their name . . . it is actually an abbreviation of their official corporate name, The New York Metropolitan Baseball Club, Inc. It also gave a nod to an old Metropolitans team that existed back in the 1880s. Metropolitan means “concerning a large city.”
Fun fact: At one point in the 1970s, New York was the simultaneous home of the Mets (baseball,) Jets (football,) Nets (basketball), and Sets (tennis).
This once-proud franchise has fallen on some hard times recently, to be sure. The fact that the Browns are the last on this list is coincidental, we swear. The Browns are the only team in the league to feature an unadorned helmet on both sides because really what would a mascot be for a brown? So, where did their name come from? Answer: the last name of their first coach and co-founder, Paul Brown, despite his own objections. He would later go on to create the Cincinnati Bengals as well, and he helped make American football into the modern, professional sport it is.