What’s in a name? Pelicans hope to find out

January 25, 2013

Hornets are for the birds. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

In the NBA, the name is rarely as important as the game, which explains why there are Lakers in Los Angeles, Jazz in Utah, Grizzlies in Memphis, Raptors in Toronto, Wizards in Washington and two other franchises that draw monikers from weather elements.

Hornets was an equally silly name for the NBA franchise in New Orleans, but new owner Tom Benson has attempted to rectify the problem by announcing Thursday that the team would change its name to the Pelicans beginning in the 2013-14 season.

From the time they moved from Charlotte nearly 10 years ago, George Shinn and the Hornets lived in denial, believing that fans in Louisiana would respond to a team whose nickname was rooted more in the toughness North Carolina residents showed while resisting the British during the Revolutionary War than simply a pesky bug.

Benson, who also owns the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, understood the disconnect before purchasing the franchise from the NBA last June and asked Commissioner David Stern to allow him to give the franchise a name that better reflects the region.

The league usually demands at least two years of preparation before allowing a rebrand, but the fast track was warranted given the struggles of the team to resonate within a community that has a rich and unique history. Pelicans may not have the same ring but it certainly has the local relevance of Pistons in Detroit or 76ers in Philadelphia.

An ornery, resilient, long-beaked fowl that has been around in some form for more than 30 million years, the pelican has been the state bird of Louisiana for over a century, adorns the state flag, seal and commemorative quarter and is an iconic symbol on par with the fleur-de-lis that dons the helmets of the Saints.

With the most appropriate nickname for a New Orleans basketball franchise residing with a team in Salt Lake City after the team moved in 1979, the Hornets went with a name that was also associated with a minor-league baseball team that played in New Orleans from 1889-1959.

“We didn’t just pick this out of thin air,” Benson said during a news conference to announce the change.

The reaction outside of Louisiana has been mixed. Chris Paul, who forced a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers last season after six seasons with the Hornets, announced his displeasure on Twitter as he wrote, “Pelicans??? #ImNotRollin.”

But since the bird was near extinction almost 50 years ago but was removed from the endangered species list in 2009, the name is also meant to symbolize the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP oil spill four years later.  If not for Katrina, the last NBA team to change its name – the Oklahoma City Thunder – wouldn’t even be in existence.

The Hornets were forced to spend most of two seasons in Oklahoma City after the storm, proving itself to be a worthy host for a franchise. Stern later got a group of Oklahoma businessmen led by businessman Clay Bennett to purchase the SuperSonics, and they moved the team in 2008, leaving the name and team colors behind.

The Pelicans have abandoned the purple and teal of the Hornets and Benson has no plans of looking back on a name change that he believed was long overdue.

“The Hornets name was brought here from Charlotte and I guess that is where it belongs,” Benson said, “but it doesn’t mean anything here.”

With the Hornets name available at the conclusion of this season, the Charlotte Bobcats could make an unprecedented move of re-adopting the name off free agency. The Hornets were Charlotte’s first major professional sports franchise when they arrived as an expansion team in 1988. They stayed for 24 years and Stern was so impressed by the support of those fans that they were issued an expansion team in 2004.

The Bobcats have foundered from the start and have never recaptured the same magic. Last October, owner Michael Jordan told the Charlotte Observer that he would “listen” to the community and explore the option of changing the name. But the Hornets and Bobcats aren’t sure who would own the name, logo and colors after this season.

In a prepared statement, NBA vice president of communications Mike Bass said the league looks “forward to continuing to work with the Charlotte Bobcats on exploring whether a name change is in the long-term interest of their team.”

With the swift turnaround for the Pelicans, the NBA probably wouldn’t make the Bobcats wait very long if it chose to become the Hornets once again.

A franchise has relocated more than 23 times in NBA history, but the Pelicans would become only the 10th to change its name after moving to a different location.

The Chicago Zephyrs became the Baltimore Bullets and later the Wizards. The Tri-Cities Blackhawks were shortened to just Hawks in Milwaukee, before eventually landing in Atlanta. The Syracuse Nationals became the 76ers in Philadelphia. The Buffalo Braves became the Clippers in San Diego and later Los Angeles. The New Jersey Americans became the Nets in New York, New Jersey and Brooklyn. The Dallas Chaparrals became the San Antonio Spurs.

The Sacramento Kings started as the Rochester Royals, moved to Cincinnati and Kansas City but with a potential sale to an ownership group from Seattle, the franchise would be expected to reclaim the SuperSonics name that represented the city for 41 years.

Pelicans in New Orleans. Hornets in Charlotte. SuperSonics in Seattle. Some names just fit.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · January 25, 2013