In the early 19th century, author Washington Irving generated publicity for his first major book by posting missing persons announcements around New York for Knickerbocker, a Dutch journalist visiting Manhattan. According to Irving, Knickerbocker left his hotel one day and never returned. Fearing the worst, Irving promised to publish the manuscript of a political thesis Knickerbocker had left behind.
In this case, the people of New York played the role of Manti Te’o, except unlike the gullible Notre Dame linebacker, it is unclear if New Yorkers ever bought the ruse. There was no such person as Deidrich Knickerbocker. His “manuscript,” A History of New York, Complete, was actually a parody written by Irving. In time, the term “Knickerbocker” became a tongue-in-cheek nickname for New Yorkers, and when Ned Irish founded an NBA franchise in Manhattan in 1946, Knickerbockers was the name for the team he pulled out of a hat.
In other words, New York’s NBA team is named after a satirical pen name used by Irving. And you expect me to make fun of the nickname Pelicans?
Sports are littered with names that seem preposterous to 90 percent of the rooting public but make perfect sense to their dedicated fans. Other team names are simply taken for granted no matter how absurd. So when the New Orleans Hornets announced their name change to the Pelicans beginning next season, it was tough not to see the irony in people ridiculing the new name.
Shaquille O’Neal has openly mocked the name, Pelicans while advocating for something reminiscent of the Tigers, the mascot of his alma mater, LSU. O’Neal’s attitude is amusing because he played for the Los Angeles Lakers, a nickname that not only is geographically inaccurate but also isn’t even a word. The franchise, originally located in Minneapolis, just took the word “lake” and added an “-r.” Philadelphia’s second NBA franchise followed this same lazy procedure in an attempt to honor the year the Declaration of Independence was ratified. O’Neal also played for the Suns, who made a plural out of an object that, in real life, is singular unless you hail from the planet Krypton.
It goes on like this. The Brooklyn franchise is named after the thing that hangs from the hoop. The Oklahoma City and Utah franchises are named after sounds, not even tangible objects. The former and future Seattle franchises are named for an adjective describing the act of breaking the speed of sound. Even your beloved Boston team is — as commonly pronounced — named for a stone tool used by ancient peoples.
The thing is, all those names are perfect. Maybe folks raised an eyebrow when the Lakers kept their name upon their move west in 1960, but few fans question the nickname’s appropriateness anymore. The Celtics, Sixers and Supersonics now have some of the iconic names in North American sports due to their uniqueness on this continent. When someone refers to the Thunder or Jazz, there is no question which type of sport they are referring to. The Rangers, Kings, Jets, Cardinals and (to a certain generation) Senators cannot say that.
Show me a nickname that is “cool” and I will show you a nickname that is boring. The NFL is rampant with oddly named teams like the Packers, Steelers, 49ers and Bills. These teams define the sport. Major League Baseball long ago gave up trying to come up with names that inspired any sort of intimidating imagery, and is chock-full of teams with avian mascots. Meanwhile, supposedly fierce names like the Jaguars, Panthers, Diamondbacks and Devil Rays could not be more forgettable.
Sure, Pelicans sounds weird now. Give it some time. Eventually, it will sound as natural as New York Knicks — and unlike Lennay Kekua and Diedrich Knickerbocker, we are pretty sure pelicans actually exist.