by Hayden Alfano
As a country, the United States has gotten pretty bad at christening its professional sports franchises. Major League Baseball’s most recent additions include the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay (formerly Devil) Rays. In 2002, the National Football League introduced the Houston Texans, which may be the only tautological team name in all of sport. And don’t get me started on Major League Soccer, which apparently chose to mimic more established European leagues without giving consideration to language differences. To wit: Real Salt Lake. “Real” means “royal” in Spanish, and carries a certain weight when paired with a Spanish city, as in “Real Madrid;” it loses all of its gravity when ascribed to Salt Lake City.
The latest entry comes from the National Basketball Association (NBA). Last week, the NBA announced that the name for the franchise that recently relocated to Oklahoma City would be called the … get ready for it … “Thunder.”
Like many Americans, my impression of Oklahoma City is a city more infamous than famous, forever linked, tragically, with the terrorist bombing there in 1995. That’s not fair, so I’ll refrain from suggesting alternate nicknames for the new franchise.
But we’ve gotta be able to do better than “Thunder.”
It wasn’t always like this. Used to be, a team was given a name that spoke to the true identity of its host city. Take a look at some of the other NBA teams. The Detroit Pistons – a nod to the automotive industry. The Indiana Pacers — a reference to the pace car in the world’s most famous auto race. Even names that seemingly don’t make sense — like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz — have logical origins. (The Lakers’ original home was Minnesota, the “land of 10,000 lakes;” the Jazz first played in New Orleans, a city famous for that genre of music.)
What do all these names have in common? Well, for starters, they are all plural nouns, which makes sense, given that they are describing a group of individuals. The Oklahoma City Thunder is just the latest franchise to violate what should be a basic principle of naming conventions.
More than that, though, team names create a bond between the team and its city. The names are unique. The Knicks belong to New York. You won’t find any Celtics other than the ones in Boston. The “Oklahoma City Thunder” doesn’t provoke those same feelings.
Team chairman and Oklahoma native Clay Bennett reportedly said that the name suggests power, strength, and clarity, three words that connect to Oklahoma “in an effective way.” Huh? To me, “thunder” suggests rain. I’m sure Oklahoma City sees its fair share of precipitation, but so do a lot of places, and I’ve never heard reference to it being exceptionally wet there.
You know what city does have a reputation for being particularly rainy? Seattle. It’s with more than a little irony that I point out that the franchise’s new mascot invokes the city from which many say it was unjustly moved. And, of course, the team’s former nickname — the SuperSonics, a reference to the Seattle-based Boeing Company — is one of the classic, old-time monikers I’ve been recalling so fondly.
It’s of little consolation to jilted Seattleites, but the Thunder will never belong to Oklahoma City the way the SuperSonics did to Seattle.
Oklahoma City Thunder
National Basketball Assocition
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by Hayden Alfano