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In New Orleans, High Hopes for the Perfect NBA Team Name

In New Orleans, High Hopes for the Perfect NBA Team Name
New Orleans Hornets

The very day New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson was introduced as the new owner of the New Orleans Hornets back in April, he mentioned that he wanted to make one long-overdue change to the NBA franchise the city inherited from Charlotte, North Carolina, a decade ago. He wanted to change the team’s name, he said, to something that actually means New Orleans. “The ‘Hornets,’” he said, “doesn't mean anything.’”

Naming sports franchises is never easy, but context often helps: Hornets might mean something to someone somewhere, but not in Louisiana, just as "the Jazz" lost all logical meaning the moment New Orleans’ original NBA team decamped in 1979 for Salt Lake City.

The new ownership won’t say yet what sorts of names Benson has in mind, whether he intends to crown some finalists or crowdsource them, or if he has any favorites already on the tip of his tongue. Technically, he doesn’t formally become the team’s owner until next month. But New Orleans is already busy speculating and arguing about this rare opportunity to distill the city's image into a single team name – and about the ways in which this civic exercise could either rally New Orleans or go horribly wrong.

"I am fascinated and madly in love with several of the options," says Chris Trew, who is the Hornets’ unofficial team comedian (which is to say he is both a Hornets season-ticket holder and a full-time comedian who tends to show up at team events to film basketball-related sketch comedy). "And I’m terrified," he adds, "of some of the options as well."

It’s tough to cram any city’s identity into something that fits on the back of a basketball jersey. But this challenge is all the more awesome in New Orleans because… well, how to put this?

New Orleans "loathes those things that aren’t authentic," says writer Brett Michael Dykes, who's better known locally as the Cajun Boy. "That’s one of the things that so many people love about New Orleans, it’s one of the most real places you will ever visit."

And so we submit to Tom Benson that it is quite possible to screw this up in New Orleans in a way that’s not possible when you’re branding a sports franchise in, say, Reno or Kansas City. These people are absolutely not going to accept anything that’s boring, camp, or imperfect.

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A few things to consider up front: There is a distinct taxonomy to sports-team names. Anything aggressively wacky sounds too minor-league baseball (see: the Lake Monsters, SeaWolves, Mud Hens and Sand Gnats), while abstract concepts that can’t be pluralized scream WNBA (Liberty, Fever, Shock, Sky). A good New Orleans NBA name will nod to the city’s unique character (think: the New Orleans Krewe) without playing to its stereotypes (not the New Orleans Gumbo).

These general categories could be fertile ground: local music, Creole culture, things that are resilient. These categories are not: animals not found in Louisiana, anything having to do with Bourbon Street, hurricanes. And no, New Orleans can’t have "Jazz" back (we asked; a Utah spokesman confirms they’re not planning to part with the name).

"New Orleans is a victim of its own marketing, because people think it’s just Mardi Gras, just Po' Boys and just Bourbon Street,” says Lauren Thom, who owns the Fleurty Girl line of New Orleans-themed goods and accessories. "But there’s so much more to New Orleans than that. That’s why we're wanting to be careful that they absolutely nail it on the head."

People here are both protective of the idea that New Orleans is unlike any other place in America and resistant to attempts by anyone else to define exactly why that is. "It’s really hard to put your finger on," says Blake Haney. "It’s this mix of gumbo and 40 different things."

Haney is the creative director and owner of Dirty Coast, which designs and produces popular local T-shirts. It is basically his day job to think about ways to condense New Orleans’ quirky brand onto shirt-sized campaigns. Dirty Coast has actually come up with its own proposal – complete with a logo and T-shirts set to come out next week – should anyone ever ask for them.

This is what they’re lobbying for: the New Orleans Bounce.

Design by Scott Greci

Bounce conjures of course the sound of basketball, but it’s also the name of a locally grown genre of hip-hop that would make this team brand a clever, updated successor to the lost New Orleans Jazz.

"There would be some old-school folks who are like, ‘bounce, what’s bounce?'" Haney says. "All that meaning would be lost to them. But who cares? You want 14-year-old kids to flip out, so then they buy tickets and love the team. And as soon as they have money, they become season-ticket holders, and you’re good to go."

He admits the name might be a little too hip for octogenarian Tom Benson and NBA Commissioner David Stern. (Dykes, who’s also a fan of the idea, puts it this way for us: Bounce “is sort of synonymous with ample-bottom black women shaking their booties, and that might not be something David Stern and Tom Benson would be entirely cool with.") It’s also quite likely that neither of these men have any idea what bounce is and would never be the wiser, which potentially makes the idea brilliant. Then again, popular music styles do tend to come and go. Who's to say bounce music will still be big in New Orleans in 20, 30 years?

Likely, several names that would resonate with the New Orleans' sense of humor or style wouldn’t fly by the league. This city already has a team named the Saints. You almost have to name its NBA brother the Sinners. Or how about this one: the Zombies.

"I just think the uniforms would have been the coolest uniforms in the entire NBA,” Dykes says. “This city is notorious for basically being in a constant state of Halloween, and I could see a whole scene brewing around it where the arena became known as the Haunted House, and people showed up at the arena in costume, in ghoulish display."

Benson may be thinking in a slightly different direction. The local blog Hornets 247 last month uncovered paperwork filed with the secretary of state from Metairie, home of the Saints, for "The New Orleans Louisiana Angels, LLC" and "The New Orleans Louisiana Spirit, LLC."

"That’s not entirely surprising when you consider Tom Benson and his wife, they exude Catholicism," says Dykes. "If you’ve ever seen them in their sky box at the Super Dome for Saints games, their VIP guests are usually the archbishop, a bunch of priests and a bunch of nuns."

Should the team go with either of those names – never mind that one sounds like a WNBA franchise and the other a vaguely familiar Major League Baseball team – the biggest disappointment might be that the city wouldn’t have a chance to bat around more of its own ideas. Like what about the Brass, or the Voodoo, the Po' Boys or the Pelicans? (New Orleans, if you didn’t know, has tons of pelicans.)

But it’s also worth remembering that many locals disliked the Saints when the NFL team was first named in the 1960s (after, yes, a song that most third-graders learn to play on the recorder).

"Some people were like, ‘A saint is not intimidating!'" Trew says. "How is a saint going to compete against a bear or a lion?"

Some names, clearly, just take on a life of their own after a while (even as others, like the Hornets, fail to accrue the least bit of loyalty). Who has the most fervent fan base in the history of the universe, beyond even the sports world? The Beatles.

"And the Beatles have the worst, most ridiculous name of all time," says Trew. "Their name is a terrible pun off a music beat. And people got over it."

Maybe New Orleans has two chances to get this right: one this summer as the franchise mulls a new brand, and another in the  seasons to come as the actual team has a fresh chance to make that name synonymous with winning something.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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