Oklahoma City versus Memphis. It’s a battle of relocated franchises. Ten years ago writers covering this series would have spent two weeks in the Pacific northwest; now they’re driving back-and-forth on Interstate 40 through Arkansas.
Both the Grizz and the Thunder made north-south migrations last decade; both moved into small markets; both have a wealth of young talent; and both are giving the Western Conference establishment fits.
But there is one key difference between these two not-so-storied franchises: When the Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to Memphis, they kept their ursine nickname; when Clay Bennett moved his team to Oklahoma, he left “SuperSonics” behind in Seattle.
The “Sonics” nickname was a parting gift for the people of the Emerald City, who will be able to resurrect the moniker if they get another NBA team.
“SuperSonics” is a name specific to Seattle, the home of Boeing. (Boeing recently moved its headquarters to Chicago, but still maintains a major presence in Washington.) When Oklahomans talk about “Sonics,” they’re talking about drive-in restaurants, not breaking the sound barrier. (Sonic, America’s Drive-In, is headquartered in OKC.)
Choosing a new nickname was a good idea. I still wish they would have called the team the Oklahoma City Slickers, but at least they left behind a name that wouldn’t have traveled well.
The Memphis franchise didn’t. The Vancouver Grizzlies became the Memphis Grizzlies, geography be damned.
There are grizzly bears living in British Columbia. I saw one there on a family vacation several years ago. There are no grizzlies within a thousand miles of Memphis. There are some black bears in the Arkansas Ozarks, but the nearest grizzly bears are in Wyoming and Montana. The name should have stayed in Vancouver.
The Memphis team then could have chosen a nickname inspired by Elvis, barbecue, the blues, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Mississippi River (but not FedEx). When Memphis was in contention for an NFL franchise in the 1990s, the city’s proposed name was the Memphis Hound Dogs.
That was a great name. There’s no reason Memphis can’t use it for the city’s basketball team.
The Grizzlies aren’t the first NBA team to stick with a geographically inappropriate nickname.
In 1979 the New Orleans Jazz moved to Utah and kept their nickname. “New Orleans Jazz” was one of the great geographical nicknames in the history of professional sports. “Utah Jazz” is just confusing. Utah is a lovely state, but if I were to rank the 50 states according to how appropriate it would be for that state to have a pro team called the Jazz, Utah would be 47th (ahead of only North Dakota, Wyoming, and Alaska).
If I were David Stern, I would require Utah and New Orleans to swap nicknames. I would then recommend that the Utah Hornets change their name to the Bees, since Utah is the Beehive State.
Since the Lakers have been in Los Angeles for 50 years and have become one of the most successful franchises in professional sports, we forget how inappropriate their nickname is.
“Lakers” is a Minnesota name, and it made sense when the team was playing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It doesn’t make nearly as much sense in southern California. To what lakes does the name refer? Silver Lake? Toluca Lake? If I were David Stern, I’d probably leave the Lakers alone, but I’d be upset that my two most important franchises have questionable nicknames. (“Celtics” is an adjective pronounced incorrectly and used as a noun.)
Geographically inappropriate monikers don’t tend to be a problem in baseball and hockey.
The Seattle Pilots became the Milwaukee Brewers; the final incarnation of the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers; the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals. In the NHL, the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes; and the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche. All of these teams chose new names that fit the cities they were moving to.
The NFL’s track record is mixed.
The Tennessee Titans rightly dropped the Oilers nickname when they settled in Nashville. There aren’t any oil fields in Tennessee, just hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants. While I’m sure there are plenty of male sheep in the vicinity of St. Louis, you won’t find bighorn rams in Missouri like you will in California. In a perfect world, St. Louis would have retained the Cardinals nickname (even though that name originally belonged to Chicago) and Arizona would have selected a new one. (I would suggest “Roadrunners.”) “Colts” was a great name for Baltimore, home of the Preakness Stakes. “Colts” is a bit out of place in Indianapolis. But if the Mayflower trucks hadn’t taken Baltimore’s nickname to Indiana, we wouldn’t have the Ravens, perhaps the best geographically inspired nickname in sports today. (The Ravens are named for a poem by Baltimore’s favorite son, Edgar Allen Poe.)
In recent months the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, and Jacksonville Jaguars have all been the subject of relocation rumors. If these teams decide to find a new home, I encourage them to leave their old nicknames behind and select a new name, inspired by their new city.
Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley.