Team names in the NBA are — as a rule — regionally specific. When Walter Brown named the Boston Celtics in 1946, he did so to tap into the tradition of the Original Celtics — a barnstorming team from New York — and, well, because Boston is full of Irishmen. The Pistons because cars, the 76ers because Ben Franklin. And on and on: The SuperSonics were named because of Boeing’s contract to build the first American SST in Seattle (which, incidentally, never happened); the Pacers for Indiana’s rich racing history, from harness racing (where the horses are called pacers) to the pace car at the Indy 500. Sure, teams like the Lakers and the Jazz moved and left behind their far more appropriate origins in Minneapolis and New Orleans. But New Orleans’s recent choice of the Louisiana state bird as the (until recently terrifying) mascot of the Pelicans demonstrates the enduring importance of regional attachment when it comes to naming a team.
But then there’s the Toronto Raptors.
When Toronto was awarded an NBA franchise in 1993, popular culture was rotten with dinosaurs, and for good reason. Michael Crichton’s blockbuster novel Jurassic Park had been turned into a blockbuster movie that made them cool all over again, not least because science had turned your dad’s slow, sluggish, cold-blooded dinosaurs into fast, agile, birdlike creatures that were, in the parlance of the time, more EXTREME and RADICAL. (Picture Dan Cortese saying these words for maximum effect.)
Although the tyrannosaurus got some shine (and T-rex was actually in the running for the nascent Toronto team’s mascot), the biggest beneficiary by far of Jurassic Park’s PR push was the velociraptor. Never mind that an actual velociraptor was maybe only the size of a fairly buff turkey:
The movie exaggerated them, essentially slapping a niftier-sounding name on deinonychus. Thus was science embraced, then quickly brushed aside. Likewise, Toronto, by way of national vote, brushed aside other, more regionally appropriate names like the Huskies (originally used by a team that played for just one year in the Basketball Association of America, a precursor to the NBA) and the alliterative Terriers (which I’m sure Andy Greenwald would have loved) in favor of the short, punchy, ludicrous Raptors.
Canada was, as a country, clearly drunk. But professional sports is no less a national popular culture than movies, television, or music. Instead of being beholden to regional considerations, what if other teams in the NBA had been seized by the popular zeitgeist and then named after whatever pop culture ephemera or invention held sway over the country’s attention at the time?
Detroit Pistons / Detroit Rosebuds (1941)
Released in 1941, Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’s first feature, establishing him as a visionary filmmaker but also a crotchety and difficult bastard. Thus, a perfect fit for the Bad Boys era, plus they could have used a slogan like “Dread the sled,” given away promotional snow globes, and called their arena Xanadu. But would naming the team from one of America’s most proudly blue-collar cities after the treasured boyhood toy of a jaded and detached multimillionaire in a film starring and directed by one of America’s foremost iconoclastic auteurs have backfired? Meh. Couldn’t have been any worse than trying to square “Utah” and “Jazz” in your head for the past 35 years.
New York Knicks / New York ENIACs (1946)
This actually doesn’t sound all that different from “Knicks,” plus it would mean a team named after the first general-purpose computer and not a pair of pants. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was first announced in 1946, weighed 30 tons, contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, and read data from punch cards. But even that old warhorse could have seen that J.R. Smith’s contract was a huge mistake. Uniforms that looked like lab coats with pocket protectors would have made the ’90s Knicks the most bruising nerds ever.
Golden State Warriors / Golden State Slinkies (1946)
OK, this actually has a grounding in regionalism. Founded in 1946 in Philadelphia, the team that would eventually become the Golden State Warriors shares a birthplace and an era with a toy that swept a nation longing to be healed from the deprivation of World War II: the Slinky. Richard James’s invention was first demonstrated at Gimbels in downtown Philly, and the entire stock of 400 units sold out in just 90 minutes. With the country going nuts for the coiled piece of metal that walks down stairs, you can bet the corporate synergy with such a successful brand would have meant SOMEBODY would have been there to film Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in Hershey. Side bonus for the current Golden State Slinkies: Steph Curry’s ankles are actually Slinkies.
Los Angeles Lakers / Los Angeles Black Dahlias (1947)
Yes, in 1947 the Lakers were in Minneapolis, but retconning the infamous “Black Dahlia” murder into the legacy of the Lakers just makes too much sense for a team this Hollywood. Would they have gone with Forum purple and gold, or something a little more florid? Maybe black with crimson piping at the bottom of the jersey and top of the shorts. The Lakers are notoriously mascot-less, but maybe the Black Dahlias could have a film noir–style private dick and the cheerleaders could all dress up like Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential.
Atlanta Hawks / Atlanta Holdens (1951)
The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and written by J.D. Salinger, a man who rarely left the house. Sort of like the Atlanta Hawks and the first round of the playoffs. But the team’s history, of course, stretches back much further: They only became the Hawks in 1951 when they migrated to Milwaukee from the tri-cities of Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport in Iowa. Although they were champs in 1958 when they were located in St. Louis, the team would have really grown into its Salinger-inspired moniker after moving to Atlanta in 1968 and becoming kind of perpetually adolescent: often fun (with players like Pete Maravich and Dominique Wilkins) but seemingly not ever quite ready to contend.
Milwaukee Bucks / Milwaukee Monoliths (1968)
Premiering in Washington, D.C., in April 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey might not have been quite the blockbuster that Jurassic Park was when the Raptors were named, but it did garner several Academy Award nominations (and won Kubrick the only Oscar of his career, for Best Visual Effects). The film’s enduring legacy as the face of a franchise would have been awesome: inflatable monolith mascots, the entire crowd singing “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” to get hyped at home games, sumptuous executive suites appointed like Louis XIV bedrooms, and novelty-sized space baby basketballs. Instead of the crowd roaring during visiting team free throws, they could just breathe in unison, intensely and with a bit of panic. Way more disturbing.
Portland Trail Blazers / Portland Apollos (1970)
Neil Armstrong’s one small step could have been one giant leap for Portland. In fact, “Portland Giant Leaps” isn’t half bad, but the visual of Apollos is better, with a logo based on the original Apollo 11 mission patches and a mascot named Astro decked out in full space suit, dunking basketballs through flaming parts of booster rockets. The team could enter the arena to the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” with wires rigged up to simulate walking on the moon (which also sets up a good rivalry with the Milwaukee Monoliths). Plus, “Walking on the Moon” by the Police! Sure, we have the Houston Rockets, but there just aren’t enough hard-science-themed team names out there.
Sacramento Kings / Sacramento Coopers (1972)
In 1972, the Cincinnati Royals moved to Kansas City and adopted a new moniker, because K.C. already had a team of Royals. They became the alliterative Kansas City Kings, but Kansas City Coopers is alliterative and mellifluous, plus it harnesses the fascination with D.B. Cooper’s notorious hijacking of a Boeing 727 in late November 1971. Cooper extorted $200,000 in ransom and then parachuted into the night, never to be found. This sets up promos like guys in vintage ’70s suits parachuting in with sacks of money at halftime, then never giving any of it away and vanishing. Very Maloofs.
San Antonio Spurs / San Antonio Godfathers (1973)
In terms of character, you couldn’t ask for a better cinematic fit for the San Antonio team we’ve known and loved under Gregg Popovich than The Godfather, released in March 1972. It won the Oscar for Best Picture a year later in 1973, just a few months before the Dallas Chaparrals relocated to San Antonio. The team’s no-nonsense, all-for-one ethos is embodied in “Don’t take sides against the family.” General manager R.C. Buford has a strong track record of making free agents offers they can’t refuse. And how many teams have they sent to sleep with the fishes? Efficient, wise, not liable to crack under cross-examination either by a Senate subcommittee or Doris Burke, Pop is the perfect Don and Buford his ideal consigliere.
Miami Heat / Miami Die Hard (1988)
1987 — the year preceding the founding of the Miami Heat — was a big one for action films, so: the Miami Predators? Could have had a cool invisible mascot. The Miami RoboCops? Just picture some promotional LeBron swag with “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” on it. But no: Let’s stick to the actual year of their founding and a weird collective noun and go with the Miami Die Hard. Dirty tank tops for jerseys! “Yippee Ki Yay Motherf-cker” chants! Sergeant Al Powell inflatable mascot! Sideline reporter Dick Thornburg, with replays of dunks set to “My god … Tell me you got that”! And just how many Die Hard films are they making? Not one, not two, not three …
Memphis Grizzlies / Memphis Nothings (1995)
1995 represented the peak of at least two things: the NBA’s interest in forcing Canadians to enjoy basketball and Seinfeld’s cultural currency. From 1994 to 1995, the show was no. 1 in Nielsen ratings, just two years after being ranked 25th. Seinfeld increased its viewership from about 20 million to more than 30 million.
There could be no greater team about nothing than the Grizzlies in their early days when they were in Vancouver. Rookie (and David Puddy look-alike) Bryant “Big Country” Reeves led the team to a 15-67 record in its inaugural 1995-96 campaign, and it wouldn’t be until 2003-04 — its third season in Memphis — that it would manage a winning record, going 50-32 under Hubie Brown. By that point, Seinfeld would have already been over for six years, but Memphis fans could still have been enjoying pop-and-slap bass in-arena music and concession stands selling soup, Jujyfruits, Junior Mints, and Snickers (on plates with knife and fork, of course). The show is an almost bottomless reserve of promotional gimmicks: Bubble Boy bobbleheads, Commando 450 shower head giveaways, cheerleaders dancing like Elaine and … contests.
Charlotte Bobcats / Charlotte Smoke Monsters (2004)
The Bobcats being called the Bobcats is basically the ultimate act of hubris: Popular-vote winner “Charlotte Flight” was overruled by original owner Bob Johnson, whose name just happens to appear prominently in the word “Bobcat.” It’d be like Walter Brown’s Celtics being named the Boston Walt-ruses. So good on them for going back to the Charlotte Hornets starting next year. But what if the rampant popularity of Lost in 2004 had gotten them branded the Charlotte Smoke Monsters? As elusive as success, as terrifying and unthinking as Charlotte’s draft strategy, the smoke monster would have made a kick-ass mascot. Just imagine lineup intros to this sound and creepy dark gray jerseys. After all, the only thing more frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying than the ending of Lost is probably being a Charlotte fan.
Oklahoma City Thunder / Oklahoma City Drapers (2008)
The move of Seattle’s basketball franchise to Oklahoma City coincided with the golden age of television: The Wire had just wrapped up its five-season run, Battlestar Galactica was in the midst of its final season, and both Breaking Bad and Mad Men were just beginning. Sadly, Breaking Bad just doesn’t provide much in the way of marketing tie-ins. Players driving into the arena in an RV for intros? A mascot in a yellow hazmat suit? The Oklahoma City … Meth? Can’t see it, although the breakfast promotions would have been sweet. But no: The clear choice is the Oklahoma City Drapers. Jerseys that look like suits with skinny ties, so many ’60s-themed nights, and just think of the … advertising opportunities … for … alcohol and cigarettes. Hm. Maybe Oklahoma City Meth was better.
New Orleans Pelicans / New Orleans Selfies (2013)
Fans who bristled at the Hornets rebranding themselves as an ungainly flock of waterfowl should be able to get behind the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2013. And forget those bland Pelicans uniforms: The Selfies’ jerseys can be all-over printed with a lifesize image of the player taking a picture of himself from a sharp upward or downward angle. The Kiss Cam could be wirelessly connected to fans’ cell phones to create Selfie Kiss Cam. They could give away bobbleheads of players taking pictures of themselves, and in fact, the games could be broadcast entirely from the point of view of fans taking pictures of themselves with the court over their shoulder.