Like magic, Wizards' name becomes cool
By Locke Peterseim
Special to ESPN.com

To most folks, the nickname of a moribund franchise like the Washington Bullets doesn't amount to much. But when you try to change it, that effort becomes the symbol of Everything That Is Wrong With This Country.

Bill Walton
As Bill Walton, right, would say, "The Bullets were awful after Wes Unseld stopped playing."
Here, then, is the morality tale of how the Bullets became the Wizards:

In 1964, Abe Pollin, a real estate wizard (sorry), went in with two other investors to buy the Baltimore Bullets. The basketball franchise already had a fanciful history of names: It began in 1961 as the Chicago Packers (that's South Side Meat-Packers to you, pal) and then, after a lackluster first season, changed into the much tougher-sounding Chicago Zephyrs. (The Greek god of the west wind -- or more relevantly, the name of Chicago's famous Burlington railroad passenger train, which itself was named for Chicago's famed winds.)

The team's record improved but attendance did not. Owner Dave Trager moved the club to Baltimore the following year and, rather than trying to capture local color, went the simple alliterative route, renaming it the Bullets. Attendance still wasn't great. And the next year, Trager sold the franchise to Pollin, former NBA referee Arnold Heft, and lawyer Earl Foreman. Heft and Foreman eventually turned over full ownership to Pollin.

In 1973, Pollin moved the team into the new Capital Centre in Washington, D.C., and changed the name to the Capital Bullets. Perhaps realizing this sounded more like a typing format than a basketball team, the next season they were the Washington Bullets. And so they remained for 23 years.

But in 1996 Pollin was shook by the assassination of a friend, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot by a Jewish extremist. Add to that Washington's longtime ranking at the top of list of the worst cities for murders and gunshot wounds per capita, and Pollin believed "Bullets" was no longer an appropriate nickname for a sports team. (Similarly, the Houston Colt .45s baseball team had become the Houston Astros in 1965, the last time a major sports franchise had changed its nickname without moving.)

In the spring of '97, more than 2,000 nickname suggestions were gathered from fan submissions and narrowed down to five choices: The Dragons, The Express, The Stallions, The Sea Dogs, and The Wizards. Of course, these names all brought their own negative connotations. After all, you don't want a name like Dragons to encourage D.C. hooligans to put down their handguns only to start running about breathing flame, torching villages, and devouring serfs. And the English sea dogs of the 16th century, most famously Sir Francis Drake, were arguably just vicious pirates given the royal blessing to harass, capture, and plunder Spanish ships.

In general, Bullets fans were not amused by any of the choices and, though an 800 number was set up to let the public vote for their favorite name of the five, in the end Pollin and the Bullets front office did not release the final tallies. Pollin went ahead and announced that the team, which was moving into the new MCI Center in the fall of '97, would be rechristened the Wizards.

And then things really got ugly.

Michael Jordan
It'll take more than Michael Jordan's tricks to turn around the Wizards' fortunes.
For starters, remember that this was a couple of years before "Harry Potter" mania swept the nation and wizarding would take on the cultural cachet it now holds. It was when Gandalf was simply a shorthand term for "mouth-breathing geek" rather than "Oscar-nominated role." Even the name of the most famous wizard of all time, Merlin, had been co-opted by a handheld electronic game.

Meanwhile, as the NBA set about designing the new team logo and colors, local media cynics pointed out that changing names to be socially conscious also meant massive sales spikes as fans were encouraged to buy the new Wizard merchandise.

And even more frustratingly, poor good-intentioned Pollin had stepped from one socially insensitive mire only to land right in another. Local NAACP chapter president Morris Shearin complained that the name "Wizards" carried Ku Klux Klan associations, as the Klan's supreme leader is called the Imperial Wizard, while state leaders are "Grand Dragons." Others observed that the new logo featured a ball-handling, robe-clad wizard wearing a pointy blue brimless hat just like the KKK! Well, except for the ball-handling part.

Pollin stuck to his, uh, guns, and the name and logo remained. Later the arrival of Michael Jordan as Washington's president of basketball operations in early 2000 and the attention brought by his subsequent return to the court did much to cement the legitimacy of the name to the rest of the country. And meanwhile, the term "wizard" crept out of the dungeon of social mockery to become a fairly cool designation, at least among the under-15 crowd. Me, I'm still partial to Sea Dog and in fact may adopt it as my nickname, as long as the Spanish don't object.

"Closer Look" will be a regular Page 2 feature, exploring a hot sports topic in greater detail.





NAME GAME

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