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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Los Angeles Lakers, et al

One of the clues in this weekend's Sunday Times crossword puzzle was, "They moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles in 1960."

The answer was, "Lakers."

Despite not being a basketball fan, I've probably heard the name of the team over a thousand times in the past two decades. Yet it never once occurred to me that it was a strange name for a team located in a city which is basically an irrigated desert. The name only makes sense if you realize the team originally came from a state which bills itself as "the land of 10,000 lakes."

Most NBA names make perfect sense. The Boston Celtics are based in a town with a large Irish population. (And the team, at least during Larry Bird's heyday, seemed to make an effort to remain the most Caucasian team in the league.) The Philadelphia [17]76ers, from the home of the Liberty Bell. The Houston Rockets, based in the same city as NASA. The Portland Trailblazers, located where Lewis and Clark ended their expedition. The Detroit Pistons. The Miami Heat. The Charlotte Bobcats. The Minnesota Timberwolves. Etc.

But there are a few names which seem anomalous. The Utah Jazz? That form of music has never been closely associated with Mormons, so the name only makes sense when you find out that the team moved from New Orleans back in 1979.

The Toronto Raptors were formed in 1995. Had there been some significant dinosaur fossil finds there? No, the name of that team was chosen in a nationwide contest, and was evidently influenced by the popularity of the movie Jurassic Park, which came out in 1993.

The Memphis Grizzlies? Tennessee has black bears, but no grizzlies. However, naming your basketball team the Memphis Blacks would hardly seem to distinguish it from any other NBA team. The answer: they moved from Vancouver in 2001.

I never really questioned the name of the Cleveland Cavaliers, assuming that the alliterative aspect was key there, along with the common "v," "l," and "e." Look up "cavalier" in the Free Online Dictionary and you'll get the following two definitions for nouns: "A gallant or chivalrous man," and "a supporter of Charles I of England in his struggles against Parliament." Ironically, as an adjective it means "showing arrogant or offhand disregard," which is antithetical to the first meaning of the noun. In any case, the name was chosen in a contest run by the city's Plain Dealer. It's doubtful that many Ohioans felt a strong connection with Charles I, so it's a safe bet they were thinking more in terms of chivalry. (LeBron, on the other hand, seems more taken with the adjective.)

The Washington Wizards changed their name from the Bullets in 1997. It is understandable that a team based in a city which for a time rivaled Detroit as the murder capital of the country would want to eschew any violent connotations. So they had a contest to determine the name, and as seems to be the case with such contests, ended up with a name which had nothing to do with the city itself. 

The most interesting thing about this to me is how I never once questioned the name of the Lakers. I just accepted it at face value the way I unthinkingly accept so much of what I hear.


Anonymous said...

What about baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, who became the Los Angeles Dodgers? Any clues as to the origin of their name?

John Craig said...

Good question. I just took a quick look at the MLB names and they tend to have less locational relevance in general. (White Sox? Red Sox?) A few, like the Arizona Diamondbacks, or the Minnesota Twins (as in twin cities) do. But many of them, like the Detroit Tigers, just seemed to take generic sports team-like names.

As far as the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, they evidently had several nicknames before settling on the Dodgers permanently in 1932. I couldn't find an explanation as to why they chose that name, but assume it had something to do with the agility needed to dodge things....In other words, your guess is as good as mine.

John Craig said...

Guy Davis just sent an email with a link explaining that the Dodgers' name probably originated from the way people in Brooklyn used to jump on and off the trolleys, and thus became known as trolley dodgers.