Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBA’s Many City-Swaps

The many mapped travels of NBA franchises

Being a hardcore sports fan can be as painful as it is rewarding. Those long years of incompetent coaches, horrible players, and miserable records test fans’ love and patience until that one day that their team wins a championship, or at least gets into the playoffs.

Fans are further tested when dealing with apparel, because players don’t always stay put, and even mascots change. (Pelicans? Really?) How many different jerseys must one buy before giving up?

But what happens to a fan when their team flips them the bird and just up and leaves for another city? These are the stories of such NBA franchises.

Charlotte Hornets/New Orleans Pelicans

The Charlotte Hornets were one of the most beloved NBA teams in the ’90s, with no real logical reason behind it. The Hornets came to be when North Carolinian businessman George Shinn began lobbying for Charlotte to have an NBA team in 1985. After three years, Shinn got his wish, as the Charlotte Hornets and the Miami Heat joined the NBA as expansion teams.

From 1988-2002, the Hornets failed to win the Conference Finals, but gained notoriety and fans. One reason for this was that the Hornets had one of the shortest All-Star basketball players in the league, Muggsy Bogues at 5’3″. The other reason was that they scored the greatest mascot in the history of the NBA, Hugo the Hornet, who was designed by Cheryl Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, and was the recurring champion of the NBA Mascot Slam Dunk Championship.

Unfortunately, fans in Charlotte loved their basketball but didn’t love paying for it quite so much. Shinn requested a new arena that he would not have to help pay for. Initially, the city said no, but threats of relocation forced them to accept. The relocation happened anyway as political issues thwarted the new arena. The NBA allowed Shinn to move the Hornets to New Orleans in 2002 while promising the city of Charlotte a new team by the 2004-2005 season.

Things were business as usual for the New Orleans Hornets from 2002-2005 as they continued to lose in the playoffs. When Hurricane Katrina came, the Hornets were forced to relocate to Oklahoma City temporarily. The city embraced the team with such passion that, when the Hornets left, they were awarded with another NBA team later, for good.

After returning to New Orleans and continuing to be an afterthought in the NBA, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson bought the team in 2012, and announced that the team’s name would be changed to something more NOLA-like. Unfortunately, the Utah Jazz refused to relinquish their trademark. So continues the whirlwind of a franchise, now named the New Orleans Pelicans.

Meanwhile, the city of Charlotte was given their new NBA team in 2004, the Charlotte Bobcats. In even more ridiculous news, the city will regain their beloved Hornets name in 2014, which was released when the New Orleans Pelicans came to be. It’s like George Shinn never existed!

pelicans2 Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Atlanta Hawks

In 1946, Buffalo was teased with an NBA team, the Buffalo Bisons, which probably helped inspire the naming tradition to continue with the NFL team, Buffalo Bills. It only took 13 games for the experiment to fail, prompting team owner Bob Kerner to move the franchise to Moline, Illinois, and rename it the Tri-City Blackhawks. The NBA was created three years later, with the Blackhawks as one of the original 17 teams.

But even the coaching of Red Aurbach couldn’t save the Blackhawks from being in a worse location than even Buffalo, and the team was moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1951. The franchise name went through the massive re-branding that goes with taking out the first five letters, which is how we were left with today’s name: Hawks.

The adventure didn’t end there. In a battle for money, the Hawks moved on to St. Louis until 1968, at which point owner Ben Kerner finally gave up and sold the team to Tom Cousins and former governor of Georgia Carl Sanders, who promptly brought the Hawks to Atlanta and then sold it to the unofficial owner of the city of Atlanta, Ted Turner, aka Lord Time Warner, who has since sold the team along with every other sports team in Atlanta.

hawks Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Los Angeles Clippers

In case you didn’t know, the Clippers were never very good. They have always been someone else’s back-up plan, whether it was for a city, an arena, or even a player.

Before they were known as the Clippers, and even before they were on the West Coast, the Clippers were known as the Buffalo Braves from 1970 to 1978. With eight years of mediocre play to show off, owner John Y. Brown somehow convinced the owner of the Boston Celtics, Irv Levin to trade teams, prompting rumors that the two may have put up their teams in an extremely high-stakes poker match. I say rumors, but I’m the only person I know who thought of it.

Maybe Irv Levin just wanted to retire, which makes more sense because he moved the team to laid back San Diego and renamed them the Clippers. After picking up a broken Bill Walton, the Clippers mailed in a few seasons until Levin decided to retire for real, and sold the team to Donald Sterling, who moved them to Los Angeles to be the ugly stepbrother of the Lakers.

It was indeed ugly. The Clippers promptly picked up veteran players time and again who promptly injured themselves time and again, leading sports writers to coin the term, “Clipper Triangle.” Not exactly a stellar marketing tool to lure other players in.

Finally, the Clippers did what football’s New York Jets did: shamefully rented out space at another team’s stadium: the Staples Center where the Lakers played. No one saw any worth in letting them have their own arena, not even their owner. At the moment, they are the hot team at Staples Center with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul leading the charge. But, like all things related to the Clippers, that can only mean that doom is on the horizon.

clippers Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Golden State Warriors

When it comes to sports in Oakland, it seems that teams can’t wait to get out. The Raiders left Oakland a city without football, but came back when they found out Los Angeles had even less money to support a stadium. The Athletics are fighting to pack up their baseball diamond and find a home in San Jose. Oakland even had a hockey team, the Seals, which decided that Cleveland, Ohio was a better city.

The Golden State Warriors, however, fought to move to Oakland from San Francisco. The team originated in Philadelphia when the BAA became the NBA in 1949, and brought us Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 100 points in the team’s final season in the city of brotherly love before the Warriors moved to San Francisco. How’s that for a goodbye kiss?

While the Warriors were based out of San Francisco in name from 1962 – 1971, the team ended up playing random games in Daly City, Oakland, and San Jose as well, making them more the Bay Area Warriors. Maybe I’m using that name in hindsight because the Warriors changed their residence to Golden State, which is the whole state of California, and moved to Oakland permanently in 1972.

Of course, all good things in Oakland must come to an end, and the residency of the Warriors is no different as the team’s new owners aim to move back to San Francisco in 2018 when their lease at Oracle Arena ends.

warriors Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Los Angeles Lakers

In case you were wondering, no, there aren’t any lakes near Los Angeles. Well, not enough to make naming a legacy franchise basketball team the Lakers, but when you’re a fan of a historically awesome team, chances are you won’t care if they’re based in Arizona and called “The Eskimos.”

The truth is, the Lakers name used to mean something for a hot minute. The Lakers called Minneapolis home from 1947 – 1960, which makes a lot more sense as a team name since Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” The irony of land being known by how many lakes it has, which is clearly not land, is not lost on me. It was there that the team began a dynasty, winning five championships.

The Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960, the land of no lakes. While money may have been the major issue (since you can’t find too many people to watch basketball, and the fish in those lakes can’t buy tickets), the move helped the franchise in other ways: it made the Lakers the first NBA team on the west coast; it got the Lakers out of the same division as the Celtics so that they could battle it out in the NBA Finals every year instead of leading up to the Finals; it makes the name “Lakers” seem ridiculous, and I love the ridiculous.

lakers Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies are the first major professional sports team to be located in Memphis. While the state of Tennessee has other sports teams, such as the Tennessee Titans in the NFL and Nashville Predators in hockey, those teams are in Nashville. Memphis is the basketball city. Barely.

The Grizzlies are originally from Vancouver, Canada. Back in 1995, the NBA had a grand idea of bringing their league to Canada. Two teams sprouted from this brain aneurysm: the Toronto Raptors, which has an awesome dinosaur logo, and the Vancouver Grizzlies, which had a generic, “animal that still exists” bear logo.

Finally, in 2001, the owners pleaded with the NBA to allow them to move to Memphis, probably citing how Canada is hockey country, and western Canada is really hockey country. The only western Canadian province that doesn’t have an NHL team is Saskatchewan, and nobody can pronounce that name anyway, nevermind put a team name after it. Although, if there ever was a team named the Saskatchewan Sasquatches, I would buy a jersey in a second. I don’t care what sport it is.

grizzlies Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Washington Wizards

If NFL team owner Dan Snyder is still contemplating what to do about the public outcry against the name “Redskins,” he only has to look over the Anacostia River to Washington D.C. to see if fans will follow a team no matter what name they change to.

The team now called the Washington Wizards first came to be in 1961 as the Chicago Packers. The name didn’t last long, considering the rivalry between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. It’s surprising the name was used at all. After one year the team’s name was changed to the Zephyrs, which was much easier to handle.

Then in 1963, the team moved to Baltimore, and were renamed the Bullets. How’s that for a team name reflecting the demeaning part of a city? The Washington Redskins have nothing on the Baltimore Bullets, although they did share the city of Landover when the Bullets moved in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and were renamed the Capital Bullets, and then the Washington Bullets.

In 1997, the name “Bullets” was regarded as too violent a name in a time that gun control was a controversy, so the team’s name changed to the Washington Wizards. Pretty PC, even if it was a little geeky, no?

Actually, no is right. The name Wizards was controversial because leaders of the KKK were called “wizards,” but once Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy began to come out, the idea that Gandalf, played by Ian McKellan, could be linked to the KKK became ludicrous. Besides that, Michael Jordan bought part of the team and came out of retirement to play, so how bad could it be?

wizards Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Sacramento Kings

It’s been a long road for the Kings to find their home. Luckily for them and their fans, it seems that they finally found their roots in Sacramento. In case you were wondering, yes, Sacramento is in California, not Texas.

They weren’t always the Kings, although they kept up theme of royalty through franchise history in the NBA, even though they only won a single NBA championship. However, before the NBA the Kings hailed from Rochester, New York, and were known as the Seagrams in the NBL from 1923 – 1943. Yes, they were sponsored by the Seagram’s company that made gin. Perhaps this was a way for the company to weather the storm during the Prohibition Era. Or maybe it was a way to smuggle gin into the states that HBO’s Boardwalk Empire didn’t cover.

After changing their name to the Rochester Pros for a hot few years, the team changed their name, again, to the Royals, and entered the NBA in 1948. Due to financial issues, the Royals moved to Cincinnati in 1957, where they played horribly until they relocated, yet again, to Kansas City, in 1972 and even played some games in Omaha, Nebraska, to see if they wanted to move there. It was in this move to Kansas City that the team’s name was changed to the Kings so that there would be no confusion between their horrible basketball team and the not-so-horrible Royals baseball team that had already set up shop in KC.

By 1985, Kansas City had enough of the Kings and, with an average attendance of just under 6,500 per game, the team fled to Sacramento, where they have struggled ever since.

kings Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Brooklyn Nets

No franchise in the history of basketball has been as indecisive about where they should be located as the New York/New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets. This isn’t because they have relocated to the most states. They just keep going between New York and New Jersey, over and over and over again.

The Nets first entered basketball as an ABA team named the New Jersey Americans in 1967. They were supposed to be located in New York, but the NBA and their New York team, the Knicks, pressured city locations to back out of allowing the Americans to play, so the team found its home in New Jersey for a season. The next season, the Americans came back to New York and hosted their games on at the Long Island Arena in Commack, New York, an arena that was so bad that a game was forfeited to the Kentucky Colonels, 2-0, because the conditions were so bad. Yet the Americans stayed on, changing their name to the Nets, and eventually moved to the Island Garden in West Hempstead, New York, and then again to the Nassau Coliseum.

With the merger of the ABA and NBA in 1976, the Nets took the move to a new league as a chance to move again. It wasn’t a major relocation. They just moved back to New Jersey, and were so bad that team president that Jon Spoelestra tried, and failed, to rebrand the team in a better light as the New Jersey Swamp Dragons. Unfortunately, the name was rejected. They could have had the greatest mascot ever. Or worst, depending on your sense of humor.

Then the Nets miraculously improved, with the help of Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, making it into the playoffs and even the NBA Finals. What do you do when a team improves? Move them again? Why not?! In 2012, the Nets moved back to New York. Or, for those of you that define themselves by their boroughs, Brooklyn.

nets Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Oklahoma City Thunder

I am not a Seattle Seahawks fan, but I am happy that their fans finally got the Lombardi Trophy to Seattle. Seattle sports fans have stuck by their teams with a rare, obsessive love that rivals Star Wars fanatics and Chuck Norris Facts-makers, and it’s nice to see them score once in a while.

So when the Seattle SuperSonics high-tailed it out of the Emerald City, the shockwave of surprise hit me hard, and I’m all the way across the country in New York.

The Sonics were formed in 1967, and called Seattle their home for 41 years, going to the NBA Finals three times and winning one of them. The Sonics were so popular that the world was introduced to the Space Needle due to their logo.

Then doomsday came. The team was sold to an Oklahoma City-based company in 2006 for $350 million, and the franchise was moved to Oklahoma City and changed their name to the Thunder after a lawsuit against the team by the city of Seattle was settled. The move not only took basketball away from Seattle, but all but forced Seattle fans to change over to their hated rivals, the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s hard to fault the team, considering they have had a ton of success since the move, except for the obvious ugly change of colors from green to brown. But come on guys — thunder moves at the speed of sound. The SuperSonics, by definition, move faster than that. Don’t hobble yourselves.

There was some potential for the Sacramento Kings to relocate to Seattle, but the move was struck down by the NBA, probably because they were tired of the Kings’ continental tour over the last half-century.

thunder Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Utah Jazz

As a basketball fan, you have probably wondered why a team would be named “Jazz” when Utah is not known as a particularly jazzy state. The fact is that the Utah Jazz didn’t originate in Utah. This NBA team was born in New Orleans in 1974, which makes much more sense because NOLA is known for its music.

Unfortunately, the city wasn’t much known for its basketball fans, as the team was moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, after only five years due to financial issues. The franchise never won the NBA championship, but they did give us John Stockton and Karl Malone in their formidable years. Now the most news to come out of the Jazz was when Pelicans owner Tom Benson tried to coax the name back to New Orleans, and failed.

jazz Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

Philadelphia 76ers

The patriotism of the Philadelphia 76ers’ name has always been around. The team just hasn’t always been called the 76ers, or lived around the Liberty Bell.

The 76ers were originally known as the Nationals, and hailed from Syracuse, New York, where they played at such ultra-American venues such as the Syracuse Armory Building, the State Fair Coliseum, and the Onondaga County War Memorial. They spent 17 years in Syracuse, and even won an NBA title.

Unfortunately for Syracuse, the team was sold to a group that wanted to bring an NBA team back to Philadelphia after the Warriors left. With a little money and a name change to the 76ers, the team made the move, and rotated venues in the City of Brotherly Love even more so than in Syracuse. At last count, the 76ers have called five arenas in Philadelphia home, with the Wells-Fargo Center lasting the longest… so far.

76ers Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps


An icy rivalry indeed.

Patrick Emmel is a die-hard sports fan, but you won’t find him rifling through athletes’ garbage cans. Unless he’s “lost his wallet.” You can see more of his work at Sports Jeer, The Inept Owl, or heckle him on Twitter @Patrick_AE.

Like accidental awesomeness in football? Patrick invoked his inner Madden to explain some of the most ridiculous plays in the NFL by normal-sized players and fat guy touchdowns.

foot digital visionthinkstock Called for Traveling: Mapping the NBAs Many City Swaps

How much would Scott Norwood’s foot go for at auction?

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