I enjoyed writing the previous article on the Washington Nationals so much that I decided to make another post along the same lines, this time on their fellow D.C.-residing basketball counterpart, the Washington Wizards. Whereas the Nationals were so-named to avoid any potential political or public backlash, the Wizards provide an interesting counterexample as they have faced controversy over their name, and name changes, at several points during their existence, oftentimes ignored by team ownership.
The Wizards are a bit of an odd team, as the history behind this franchise, and especially the history behind their name, is fairly unique in the realm of major North American sports teams. The Wizards have played professional basketball in three major cites under four different names, and the most recent name change came about as part of the owner’s decision to rebrand the franchise into something a little less contentious. Ironically though, this renaming almost backfired, as the choice of their current name proved, at least temporarily, to be highly controversial in the District of Columbia when it was first unveiled. Additionally, it is still somewhat unpopular, and to this day there remains a push to bring back their cherished older name.
The franchise began its existence in the Windy City as the Chicago Packers in the early ’60s. While the team only lasted two years in Chicago, they still found the time to change their name to the Zephyrs for their second season, likely in response to the invariable confusion that surrounded a new team having the same nickname as the town’s primary rival in football (Chicago also had a football team called the Cardinals for over sixty years from 1898 to 1959, almost assuredly likewise causing some consternation among Cubs fans). At the end of 1962-63 season though, the Zephyrs determined that things were just not working out for them and decided to skip town, leaving Chicago without a basketball team for three seasons until the Bulls were formed in time for the 1966-67 season. They decided to move east to Baltimore, where they changed their name to the Bullets, paying homage to a previous Baltimore-based team that had folded over a decade prior.
While they may have had high hopes for success in their new home, their inability to attract sustained fan support followed them from Lake Michigan to the Chesapeake Bay. The Baltimore Bullets lasted a little over a decade in their new city before relocating again to Washington, D.C. in 1973 (okay, to a Maryland suburb, they wouldn’t move into D.C. itself until 1997). Shortly thereafter, the Bullets won their first and only NBA championship in 1978 over the San Antonio Spurs. In their third hometown, the Bullets finally began to settle into a groove and develop an active and loyal fanbase, something which had not been able to develop in either Chicago or Baltimore. By the early 1990s however, the owner of the Bullets, Abe Pollin, grew increasingly uncomfortable with the violent connotations of the team’s name.
By this point, the nation’s capital had experienced a marked rise in their crime rates, especially in homicide and other violent crimes. In 1995, Pollin’s longtime friend, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel was assassinated by a radical Israeli gunman in opposition to his signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. For Pollin, this would be the straw that broke his camel’s back. Shortly thereafter, he announced that the Bullets would be changing their name and that a team naming competition would be held to suggest a new name for the franchise.
Despite opposition from many of the team’s fans, D.C.-area residents flooded the team with 2,000 name suggestions, which they eventually narrowed down to five potential choices by the spring of 1997: the Dragons, Express, Sea Dogs, Stallions, and Wizards. While there was vocal opposition to changing the name from diehard Bullets fans, as many found the finalists all inferior to their current name, the organization pressed ahead and, without releasing the final tally of how many votes each finalist received, announced that the team would be renamed the Wizards for the 1997-98 season to time in with the opening of their new arena in D.C., the MCI Center (now the Verizon Center).
But then things got ugly. Local black leaders were quick to point out that “Wizard” was also a term used for a high-ranking official in the Ku Klux Klan. Complaints were also directed at the Wizards’ new logo, which featured a hooded man, which also seemingly brought unintended comparisons between the team’s new identity and the KKK. Finally, and less-racially (though still traditionally) controversial, the team changed its colors from red, white, and blue to blue, black and gold. All of these changes lead to vocal public outcries against the team’s rebranding, especially in a city as predominantly African-American as Washington, D.C.
In the end though, Pollin decided to stick with the Wizards, and the public outcry against the Wizards eventually died down. As the years passed though, the Wizards began to fade into obscurity on the national level, even with a spike in popular attention when Michael Jordan was hired in 2000 as the team’s president of basketball operations and came out of retirement for the second time to play for them from 2001-2003. However, Pollin would waste this positive press by shocking the team, fans, and media by firing Jordan after he retired from the team’s playing roster, leading many to angrily accuse the organization of only hiring the all-time great as a publicity stunt for as long as he was willing to play. The franchise would get an even bigger public black eye in late 2009/early 2010 when Gilbert Arenas, an All-Star who had recently received a 6-year, $111 million contract to play in D.C., was charged with unlawful gun possession, storing the weapon inside the Wizards’ locker room, and even pointing it at other teammates. Despite losing the violent connotations of their prior name, the Wizards seemed to be developing that reputation anew for their off-court antics.
These distractions, among other factors, lead the Pollin family to sell the team to Ted Leonsis, the owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals, in 2010. As the sale was being finalized, the Wizards pulled an upset in that year’s draft lottery, winning the first pick of the 2010 draft. The team’s new ownership wasted no time to try to rebrand the team away from its past shortfalls by trading Arenas as soon as was possible and drafting John Wall of Kentucky first overall in the draft. While these moves have not exactly lead to any real improvements on the court, the Wizards are evidently interested in even more fundamental changes to the franchise. On October 10, 2010, Ted Leonsis released a to-do list of 101 potential changes to the Wizards on his personal blog that his ownership group was considering or actively implementing moving forward. Perhaps most notable among these ideas are the following two points:
28. Change Wizards’ colors back to red, white and blue
31. Change Wizards’ team name to Bullets
While these suggestions were enormously popular among longtime fans of the team harkening back to the red, white, and blue Bullets days, the proposal to change the name yet again also evoked another minor-name controversy, as some have expressed concern that it would revive the violent connotations that the former owners had desperately sought to avoid and remind people of the still-embarrassing Arenas incident. If the Wizards move ahead with a return to their former name, they could very well be the only team in major sports history to face noteworthy controversy over two name changes.
Even with that in mind however, renaming the Wizards back to the Bullets seems like it would be a very popular move among longtime supporters, and obviously would generate an explosion in merchandise purchasing as all of the previously-owned Wizard and gold and black paraphernalia would suddenly be out of date. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what, if any, name and color changes take place over the upcoming offseason, and if naming controversies continue to follow this sometimes beleaguered franchise.