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All righty, then, we’re all agreed that Pelicans of New Orleans is a terrible nickname for a pro sports team.
Or are we?
Goofy, yes. But this is, after all, the NBA, which started another of its interminable seasons Tuesday. No sports league does goofy nicknames better than the NBA.
In fact, why aren’t the Clippers named the Los Angeles Goofys? Disney invented Goofy, team owner Donald Sterling is goofy, and if you’ve ever attempted to drive northbound on the Santa Ana Freeway just past where it intersects with the Santa Monica Freeway but before it T’s into the 101 ... you, sir or madam, are nuts.
No, the junior varsity L.A. team is instead named the Clippers, a handle having nothing to do with a barbershop tool, but instead is a harkening to the great sailing ships of yore that once coursed through ... San Diego Bay.
There are also no lakes in Los Angeles. But the varsity team in Los Angeles is called the Lakers. In a perverse way, the nicknames provide a ragged synchronicity with the town: Since no one who lives there is actually from Los Angeles, why should the basketball teams be?
The Lakers are from Minnesota (Land of ... well, you know), the Clippers are from San Diego, and the NBA back in the day said what the hell. Keep the nicknames. We’re just trying to save a buck on uniform embroidery.
At least there are pelicans in Louisiana. In fact, the dorky fowl is the state bird. So there is an indigenous connection. Unlike the circumstance in Utah, where the Mormon-founded state was largely bereft of lively music until some of it immigrated illegally across the border from the varmints next door in heathen-invested Nevada.
For 34 years, the Utah Jazz has been a pick-and-roll oxymoron that remains a marvel to all who worship at the church of contradiction.
The nickname Jazz was a perfect fit for the team’s original home — New Orleans, which is the subject of our discussion here. The marvelous, beleaguered Big Easy has been a place of comfort and joy for many a brigand, wastrel and miscreant — but pro basketball, not so much.
Here is the tangled story.
In January, the new owner of the NBA franchise, Tom Benson, who also owns the NFL’s Saints (another lyrical fit as a moniker), announced that the team would be known as the Pelicans instead of the Hornets. The Hornets were the name of the team that moved to New Orleans from Charlotte in 2002, because ... well, it’s complicated.
The NBA has a hard time keeping some of its teams in place. The league should have as its theme song Roger Miller’s 1964 hit, “King of the Road” (“Third boxcar, midnight train; destination: Bangor, Maine”).
Say what you will about climate change, but it should be a good, long while before any grizzlies are spotted in Memphis, whose NBA franchise was imported from Vancouver. But the NBA isn't alone in its mismatched monikers: Baseball's L.A. Dodgers were once the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, a reference to the real-life game of “Frogger” played by the New York borough's residents in the late 1800s; and the next cardinal that fans in Arizona see around their NFL franchise is more likely to have been appointed by the Vatican.
The Pelicans’ vagabond journey, however, began in 1988, when the Hornets opened for expansion business in Charlotte, to much rejoicing in basketball-rich North Carolina. Fourteen years later, the rejoicing turned into a murmur and the Hornets — whose owner George Shinn had done much to alienate the locals — were permitted to decamp to New Orleans, which had been without pro hoops since the aforementioned loss of the Jazz in 1979.
But in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the Gulf Coast, the Hornets found temporary shelter in Oklahoma City for two seasons. Upon the Hornets’ return to New Orleans Arena in 2007, the post-Katrina economy and the continued incompetence of Shinn threatened the team’s survival. In desperation, the NBA itself bought out Shinn in 2010 for $300 million, essentially making the Hornets a ward of the basketball state.
Finally, in April 2012, Benson bought the orphan team for $338 million. One of his desires was to rename it, and an 86-year-old billionaire local guy usually gets what he wants.
Despite having so many colorful, varied cultural images from which to choose — Voodoo, Gumbo, PontcharTrains, Beignets, BonTemps, Jambalayas, Blue Bayous, Po’Boys, Tombs and a personal favorite, Zydecos — Benson landed upon Pelicans.
It clanked nationally like a free throw from Shaquille O’Neal, a one-time Louisiana State University player of some renown.
In the aviary of the nickname zoo, pelicans are not seen as fierce birds of prey such as Hawks, Eagles, Falcons or Seahawks (although, truth be told, ornithologists insist there is no such bird as a seahawk; they are ospreys). Pelicans are seen as one of Mother Nature’s little self-amusements, like aardvarks or wombats. They are Saturday-morning cartoon mascots.
Predictably, players were not enthralled.
Garrett Temple, a guard for the NBA team in the nation’s capital, the Washington Wizards (fans of contradiction, you have a fresh leader in the clubhouse), grew up in Louisiana and didn’t know about the birds until sixth grade.
“The Pelicans, it just doesn’t seem right,” he told Comcast SportsNet Washington. “Maybe in three years, we’re talking about another name change and the Pelicans is just an afterthought.”
A rollback is unlikely.
Once nicknames get entrenched, fans take ownership and get defensive — even when the name is indefensible.
The reference is, of course, to the hideous moniker of another team in Washington, the NFL’s Redskins. After years of righteous, but regularly dismissed, criticism that the nickname is racist, momentum is building beyond Native American groups for change. Some fans, sports columnists and even the White House have said tradition should not stand in the way of progress.
In an interview with the Associated Press earlier in October, President Barack Obama offered his view that, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it . . . all these mascots and team names related to Native Americans, Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it. And I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has steadfastly refused to consider a change in the 81-year-old nickname, citing polls that show most Americans support his view that the name “is our history and legacy and tradition. We Redskins fans sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’ every Sunday as a word of honor, not disparagement.”
The problem with Snyder’s position is that invoking custom does not suddenly equip the topic with an impenetrable shield. For nearly 150 years, slavery was part of America’s “history, legacy and tradition,” too, but it came to an end. So, too, for child labor and smoking in restaurants — all traditions that fell victim to better ideas.
There has to be a better nickname than a slur, if for no other reason than Snyder keeps making a fool of himself every time he defines to Native Americans what he thinks should cause them offense. What life experience has Snyder had that qualifies him to be the arbiter of another culture’s conscience?
Standing up for Pelicans is a lot easier than standing up for Redskins. In fact, by comparison, Pelicans begins to grow in its attraction. It’s inoffensive, indigenous, nearly unique — a longtime minor-league baseball team in New Orleans went by the name until its demise in 1959 — and a talker in a mildly amusing way. The “Pels,” as they inevitably will be known in sports-fan shorthand, may become a lovable underdog outfit, bearing nobly the burden of dorkdom.
As for the Redskins, suggestions for change are growing, including one that made news over the weekend. A neighbor of Snyder’s in Potomac, Md., filed papers with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark the name “Bravehearts” for “entertainment in the nature of football games.”
Not bad. But there’s one out there more representative of Snyder’s attitude: Klingons.
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.
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