10 NBA Teams That Almost Had Different Names: From Chicago Matadors To Boston Unicorns

The NBA has seen its fair share of teams that almost had different names. This list takes a look at ten NBA teams that might have been called something totally different if the league hadn’t cancelled their name change, or if they hadn’t gone through some significant changes in ownership.

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The process of selecting a club name may be lengthy, with owners preferring to seek several views before making a decision. There have been some outright crazy proposals throughout the years, but most NBA club names are pleasant to hear thus far. Fans all across the world have become used to the existing names, but many are unaware of what could have been if it hadn’t been for the inventiveness of a few.

Most NBA clubs obtain their names from the history of the cities, which may appear random. While this does not excuse some of the egregious naming errors, numerous clubs have chosen to keep their nicknames even after relocating to other locales. The Los Angeles Lakers for example, have nothing to do with lakes but adopted the moniker after relocating from Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

1. Unicorns of Boston

The Celtics were chosen by club owner Walter Brown as a personal favorite. In 1946, he considered various names, including the Unicorns and the Olympians, but settled on the Celtics. Although there was some trepidation since most people did not believe the Irish name would be well received, Brown was adamant about keeping the name because it had a long basketball history. During their career from 1914 to 1939, the New York Celtics were a successful club.

According to NBA.com, Walter Brown was drawn to the Celtics because of their basketball history:

“Whirlwinds, Olympians, and Unicorns were among the nicknames tossed about. ‘The name has a fantastic basketball pedigree from the original Original Celtics in New York,’ Brown said, explaining why he selected Celtics (1914-1939). And there are a lot of Irish people in Boston.’”

The Boston Celtics have long been recognized as the official name of the team, and they are one of the most successful NBA teams in history. They share 17 titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, with their most dominating run being in the 1960s.

2. The Matadors of Chicago

Thanks to Michael Jordan’s skill, the Chicago Bulls have become one of the most popular teams in NBA history Richard Klein, on the other hand, was looking for a moniker for his new team in 1966 and was contemplating the Chicago Matadors. He wanted to show Chicago as the meatpacking capital of the United States but the Matadors weren’t up to the task. Fortunately, he chose the Bulls, and the moniker has since become synonymous with Chicagoans.

Klein’s son Mark, according to him, was instrumental in the decision:

“We were the world’s beef capital.” At first, I considered names like Matadors or Toreadors (interesting how it worked out given today’s Matadors), but if you think about it, no team with more than three syllables in its name has ever had any success, with the exception of the Canadians. When my small kid Mark replied, ‘Dad, that’s a lot of crap!’ I was sitting around the home with my wife and three boys, throwing these names around. ‘That’s it!’ I said. They’ll be known as the Bulls!’ That is how the squad earned its moniker.”

While the Matadors may seem strange, you can see how Klein was attempting to characterize the team as they began their NBA career. The Bulls have had some great years in their history, winning six NBA championships between 1991 and 1998.

The Phoenix Cactus Giants are the third team in the Phoenix Cactus League.

The NBA handed the city of Phoenix a franchise as part of an expansion, and the quest for a suitable name started before the start of the 1968-69 NBA season. The franchise, in collaboration with the Arizona Republic, held a name-the-team campaign, which required community participation once again. With supporters suggesting names like the Cactus Giants, Sun Lovers, and Scorpions, owner Jerry Colangelo had to undertake a lot of soul-searching before settling on the Suns as the best representation of the city.

Before deciding on the Suns, the owner had to go through 28,000 submissions, according to FanSided.

“Colangelo picked ‘Suns’ from a list of 28,000 names that included the Scorpions, Rattlers, Thunderbirds, and more unusual names like Tumbleweeds, Poobahs, and Cactus Giants.”

It was the right name for Colangelo to reflect Arizona’s sunset, which is a stunning sight with plenty of purple and orange. The team’s official colors were those as well. The Phoenix Suns fell to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals their third participation in the finals but no title.

Milwaukee Skunks, No. 4

The Robins and Skunks were the most popular choices in the name-the-team contest, despite the fact that Wisconsin is renowned for its strong hunting culture. It’s unknown why fans decided to identify the team with a creature that is notorious for its awful odor. Regardless, the judges rejected the offered names and decided on their own. They chose the Bucks because it was better in keeping with the city’s traditions.

Only 45 individuals nominated the Bucks out of 14,000 submissions, according to NBA.com:

“Milwaukee’s second professional basketball club, the Milwaukee Bucks, was given a name on May 22, 1968. A contest to name the squad drew more than 14,000 entries. R.D. Trebilcox of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, was one of 45 persons who offered the name ‘Bucks,’ according to records. Bucks (male deer) were enthusiastic, excellent jumpers, swift, and nimble in his opinion. Mr. Trebilcox received a new automobile for his efforts in aiding Milwaukee’s debut into the professional sports world earn a lasting moniker.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has all of Treblicox’s qualities and led the Bucks to an NBA championship in 2021, embodies Treblicox’s vision for the team. The Bucks have continued their winning ways in the NBA, beating the Brooklyn Nets in their season opening.

5. Wranglers of Dallas

Fans offered the nicknames Mavericks and Wranglers for the squad during a local radio station’s name-the-team contest. Because Texas has a lengthy history of cattle drives, it’s easy to see why the Wranglers might be suggested. Regardless, club owner Donald Carter picked the Mavericks and gave tickets to the franchise’s inaugural game to the 41 individuals who recommended it.

According to Dallas Sports Fanatic, the administration had to sift through 4,600 postcards with a variety of names:

“Fans choose the team name by sending postcards with their favorite mascot on them. The Mavericks defeated the Wranglers and the Express after receiving 4600 postcards.”

Since 1980, the Dallas Mavericks have been a part of the NBA and have won one title. Their lone NBA championship came in the 2010-11 season, when Dirk Nowitzki stunned the Miami Heat super squad with a shocking upset.

6. Barracudas of Miami

The year is 1988, and as part of the NBA’s expansion plans, the city of Miami has been allocated an NBA team Barracudas, Sharks, Tornadoes, Suntans, and other names were suggested in a public request for proposals. The Heat was picked over the Suntans, which felt like a more apparent option at the time, since it reflects the region’s warm weather

“From more than 20,000 submissions, the owners of Miami’s expansion team chose Stephanie Freed’s Heat bid in October 1986, which includes Sharks, Tornadoes, Beaches, and Barracudas.” – MentalFloss’ Scott Allen

The Miami Heat has won three championships since its beginnings, despite the fact that the moniker doesn’t necessarily correspond to success or failure. The Heat enter their 34th season as underdogs to win the title, but they have assembled a squad capable of pulling off significant shocks.

Challengers of Orlando, No. 7

The city of Orlando was given with Challengers as the most popular proposal in another name-the-team contest hosted by the Orlando Sentinel in 1986. It was proposed in memory of the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986. However, after considering numerous options, the judges chose Magic, which is similar to the city’s biggest attraction, Disney World.

According to the Orlando Sentinel’s Barry Cooper in a 1986 article:

“Last week, those working to bring professional basketball to Orlando were befuddled by their assignment. They confronted an assignment (naming their would-be squad) that had risen as tall as one of Kareem Abdul-sky Jabbar’s hooks, with more than 4,000 sheets of paper spread out in front of them. Orlando Professional Basketball reached a decision soon before the witching hour.

Pat Williams, the group’s president, described it as “magic.” “

In former years, the Orlando Challengers would have been comical, given how little they’ve battled for in the league. Nonetheless, we’ve been treated to some spectacular years, and we’re looking forward to more that might lead to the franchise’s first-ever title.

Minnesota Polars (#8)

The Minnesota Blizzard was one of the most popular team names in a 1986 name-the-team contest for the Minnesota franchise. The Timberwolves and Polars were chosen in the end because the owners wanted a name that was distinctive to their home state. A trip to the All-Star Game was awarded to the first fan who suggested the Timberwolves.

Minnesota was close to earning the moniker Polars, according to MinnPost:

“It took almost thirty years for professional basketball to return to Minnesota after owner Bob Short relocated the Minneapolis Lakers to LOS ANGELES in 1960. A “Name the Franchise” contest was organized in October 1986 to come up with a moniker for a possible expansion team for Minnesota. There were a total of 6,076 submissions with 1,284 distinct nicknames, with the most popular being “Timberwolves” and “Polars.” The moniker “Timberwolves” was chosen by Minnesota’s 842 city councils as the winner.”

Since their entry into the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves have struggled. In the previous 14 seasons, they’ve only reached the playoffs once and never advanced beyond the Conference Finals

9. Mounties of Vancouver

In 1994, the NBA expanded to Canada, with two cities receiving expansion franchises, one of which being Vancouver. The club owner favored the Mounties, but the fans opposed, delaying the name selection for another year. Following the success of a local newspaper’s name-the-team contest, the franchise decided to go with the Grizzlies, a bear species native to the area. Despite a $100 million offer from FedEx to rename the club the Express, the team relocated to Memphis in 2001 and kept the moniker.

Mounties was offered as a homage to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, according to Ethan Trex of the Wall Street Journal:

“When the Vancouver Mounties were given an NBA club for the 1995 season, they wanted to name themselves the Vancouver Mounties. The name seemed a suitable homage to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s valor. The proposal met a roadblock, however, when the Mounties made it plain that they didn’t want their name put on the expanded brand, no doubt wary of potential cultural crossovers following Dudley Do-Right.”

Given the outcome of the franchise’s relocation to Memphis, the decision to not utilize the Mounties was a wise one. When the club departed Canada in 2001, they may have had to rename the team.

Washington Dragons, No. 10

From 1963 until 1996, the Washington Wizards were known as the Bullets, but rising public pressure and an unfortunate event involving Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a personal friend of team owner Abe Pollin, almost led to the club being renamed the Dragons. The team’s public image was degrading as a result of its association with gun violence. Pollin stated in a statement:

“Bullets struck my companion in the back. For a sporting team, the name ‘Bullets’ is no longer acceptable.”

Fans voted for the Dragons, Express, and Wizards, among others, in a name-the-team contest. Before the start of the 1997-98 season, the organization declared the Wizards as the winning name.

The selection process, according to NBC Sports, was not easy:

“The path to the term “Wizards” wasn’t as straightforward as some may believe. In 1997, the club set up 1-800 lines for the public to vote on a variety of prospective replacement names for Bullets.

Sea Dogs, Dragons, Express, Stallions, and Wizards were among the alternatives.”

The franchise last won a championship when they were known as the Bullets. They haven’t advanced beyond the conference semi-finals since changing their name in 1997, and they are unlikely to make a long run this season.

Buckets/Instagram are to thank for the inspiration.


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