Team names work best when they’re both goofy and ambitious. The very words Utah Jazz conjure someone pouring a quart of milk into a clarinet; the idea of a Sacramento King mostly just gives you the image of a winking Guy Fieri sitting on a pepperoni...
The important thing to remember, and maybe the only thing you need to remember, in any conversation about goofy or inappropriate sports team names is this: There is a NBA team called the Utah Jazz. They play their home games in front of a mayonnaise-complexioned crowd with some pretty uncool heckle-moves in a state whose relationship to jazz’s sounds and culture is roughly analogous to the relationship between George F. Will and John Coltrane. There was a good deal of snarkish armchair ornithology and shitty punning after the announcement earlier this week that the New Orleans Hornets—the NBA team that plays in the city that was once home to the New Orleans Jazz—appear likely to re-name themselves the New Orleans Pelicans next season. Snark is what the internet does, of course, but it seems silly and mostly wrong in this case. Luckily, contrarianism, the other thing the internet does, stepped in and we got a host of “The Pelicans have the best team name” defenses by yesterday.
Sports teams are, admittedly, not normally named after animals best known for 1) eating a lot of seafood and 2) chilling hard near a body of water; that an animal that does those things is close to perfect for New Orleans doesn’t matter much, according to traditionalists. Teams are supposed to be named after—and forgive the scientific jargon—sportsy tuffbirds, the classification that includes falcons and eagles and hawks but not, for some reason, psycho-eyed night-stalking owls. Hornets, in this view, are at least tough, although they are—like most insects, and again apologies for the science-talk—mostly just dicks.
Anyway, the correct response to this argument is “the Utah Jazz.” If an interlocutor objects, say it again. Say it over and over, until the person attempting to make some substantive point about team names is forced to imagine prominent Mormons Senator Orrin Hatch, Wilford Brimley, Glenn Beck, and Shawn Bradley on the cover of the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s This Is Our Music. When that person achieves that mental image, the conversation will be over, though you may have to hold that interlocutor as he weeps for a while. But the the point—which is that sports team names are invariably goofy, and are in fact better the goofier they are—will have been made.
Beyond the Jazz, the sports world is rife with object lessons in how team names can not work. The decade-long proliferation of implied plurals appears to have abated, which is nice, but the NBA is still stuck with the Toronto Raptors, the worst non-racist sports name in any major league. (The appalling Washington Redskins will forever and always be the worst in the actually-racist category and in general.)
The team picked the name in 1993, when Jurassic Park was a thing: The potential team names, voted on by fans, included both T-Rex and Raptors. That the team’s logo was, and still is, a dinosaur in a uniform dribbling a basketball is endearingly druggish; that one of the team’s first big moments involved horny destroyer-imp Isiah Thomas dramatically bursting through the logo at a press conference is even more so. (And, of course, there’s the Raptors rollerskating .gif, which was judged by SB Nation to be the greatest sports-related .gif of all time, a greater accomplishment than any the team itself can boast of.)
But it’s also worth noting how corny this naming process was. If the team had picked a monicker by the same OK-what-is-popular-in-movies-right-now formula in 2005, they’d be the Toronto Narnia. If they did it two years ago, they’d be the Toronto Team Jacob and play shirtless. If they did it today, the Raptors would be either the Toronto Goatse or the Toronto Ron Paul, because LULZ-chasing web-doofs would hijack the online poll, although that’s neither here nor there, really. Any of these, it could be argued, would be an improvement—the Toronto Ron Paul could even use more or less the same logo, with some alterations to the dribbling dinosaur’s face to make it look more worried about fiat currency.
The fundamental problem with the Raptors as a name, though, is not really all that different from the problem with the Redskins. For all the things that can define a team’s identity from moment to moment, none does that quite as literally as the team’s actual name. Leave this choice up to stupid old bigots who get sentimental about all the wrong things—that is, NFL owners and a certain type of crustoid NFL fan—and you wind up with a team whose name combines our nation’s capital and an ethnic slur. Leave it up to 11-year-olds who just watched a CGI dinosaur eat Newman from Seinfeld, and you get the Raptors by a narrow margin over the T-Rex.
The lesson for this is not that sports fans invariably ruin everything, although, as anyone who has been in a bar when a NFL game is on knows, that is often true. The lesson, if there is one—or has to be one—is that team names work best when they’re both goofy and ambitious. The very words Utah Jazz conjure someone pouring a quart of milk into a clarinet; the idea of a Sacramento King mostly just gives you the image of a winking Guy Fieri sitting on a pepperoni throne wearing a crown made of prescription drugs. Sports, in general, is most itself and most appealing when it fully inhabits its goofy humanity; the right team name can sum that up. A pelican is not intimidating, or cool, or anything but kind of a goofy bird, honestly. It’s gawky, weirdly proportioned, has that strange perma-stoned smile that some animals have. It’s perfect.
Previously: Someone’s Super Bowl