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A Lonely Seabird in a Land of Big Cats

31 January 13
Patrick M. O'Connell

And now, the starting lineup for your New Orleans … Pelicans?

New Orleans’ NBA team officially announced Thursday the team will change its name from the Hornets to the Pelicans, beginning next season.

I heartily applaud the choice. Well, I’m applauding virtually because my office is a really quiet place.

Pelicans is a great name. It’s creative, fun, even bold considering the high potential for mockery, and links the team to the city and region where it plays. Pelicans are fascinating creatures — the throat pouch thing, the long beak, the huge wingspan, the goofy looking face. It’s a refreshing departure from the same-old sports team nicknames (I’m looking at you Tigers and Wildcats) and interests casual NBA fans like myself.

Shortly after the announcement, everybody had an opinion. Within five minutes of posting a message on Twitter about my appreciation of the Pelicans, two of my friends weighed in about the name and the new logo. My co-worker came over to mock the change, confused by what he thought to be a bird-brained pick. Before heading out to dinner later in the evening, I talked about my excitement about the Pelicans with my wife and sister-in-law.

“I thought they already decided to do that months ago,” my wife said, unimpressed.

“Well, it makes sense, the pelican is the state bird of Louisiana, after all,” my sister-in-law said, surprisingly matter-of-factly.

Over on ESPN, pundits/analysts/blowhards dished their opinions. The mocking commenced. Mascots should be tough and fierce, they said, and pelicans are weak. The players won’t be able to get motivated to play with such a foolish team name on their jerseys they yelled (uh, you have a microphone on). Some ex-NBA player I didn’t know laughed at the Pelicans name, clearly perplexed and confused by the selection.

Back in fandom, most people seemed to dig the Pelicans, even if they seemed divided on the logo choice, which puts the bird face-on instead of in swooping, gullet-showcasing profile.

To me, the concept that mascots and team names need to be threatening, menacing creatures is shallow and, well, dumb. In baseball, Blue Jays are bullies among birds, but what about the gentle Cardinals and Orioles, winners of multiple World Series championships? Teams named for footwear — Red and White Sox — have won a combined three titles in the last 10 seasons. Is Maryland less of a basketball team because they are Terrapins, a species of turtle? Does Stanford football face an extra hurdle in the Rose Bowl because their mascot is a giant tree? I seem to remember they beat the Badgers, predators in the forest. Ducks? Oregon football didn’t seem slowed by the name the last few seasons. The examples are endless.

Team names should represent the city or college they represent, providing a link to the region and the people who root for the team. The more creative and original the name, the better. We have enough tough, big cats to go around. So why not Pelicans? They live on the bayou and along the Gulf Coast. A pelican is showcased on the Louisiana state flag. They’re interesting creatures not seen in most parts of the country. And don’t forget that pouch, what do they put in there? So, what’s not to like?

New Orleans Hornets didn’t make any sense. The Hornets were a name attached to Charlotte — the whole “hornet’s nest” of unrest from the Revolutionary War days in North Carolina. Cool in Charlotte, not so much in New Orleans, where it had no attachment to the city and the local culture.

The only thing better would have been returning the Jazz name to New Orleans from Utah. The guys in Salt Lake City could have become the Skiers or Microbrewers.

We need more of these bold, fun nicknames that connect fans to their teams and teams to their cities. I’m looking at you, Memphis. Grizzlies? You’re not in Vancouver anymore. Anything would be better than an animal that lives thousands of miles away. The Barbecue? Now we’re talking. The Rockers? Names that mean something to the area. Who cares whether the mascot can win the halftime fistfight.

Oklahoma City had the right idea. They dumped SuperSonics (which makes sense for Seattle) for Thunder when they relocated. The Kings, reportedly moving to Seattle, will take over the Sonics name. Washington’s baseball team also made the switch, even though I lament the loss of the Expos and their sweet intertwined M-E logo and am underwhelmed by Nationals. (Los Angeles, can Minneapolis have Lakers back? Hollywood can surely come up with an adequate replacement.)

But why do we care about any or all of this? I think it’s because mascots and nicknames are such an integral part of being a sports fan. Rooting for the team involves talking about them and their opponents’ names. We take pride in the teams we root for, and us diehards with hats and jerseys spend a lot of time in our gear (too much in my case) as we envision championships for “our” teams. We superstitiously wear our favorite T-shirt on game day. We grow up with these names and the logos and form bonds with the team. For me in Chicago, it was the S-O-X on the front of the White Sox uniforms and caps of 80s, when I dreamed of becoming the next Harold Baines, and the beautifully simple orange “C” on Bears helmets.

More casually, we’re attracted and intrigued by teams and names and color schemes in other far-off cities, foreign lands where as kids we hoped to someday visit. The orange and blue of the Knicks in New York, the maroon and gold of the 49ers in San Francisco, the black and gold of the Hawkeyes over in Iowa.

Back when I covered high school sports in Illinois, where I wrote (passionately) about teams named the Polo Marcos, Milledgeville Missiles and Freeport Pretzels, my wife came up with a crazy “rule” about mascots and teams names: they should never refer to people.

What? I asked. That’s silly. Her argument, though, is we probably think all Pirates are swashbuckling, rum-swigging, bearded men of centuries ago, but they still attack ships and kidnap people at sea. Indians live on reservations across America. Vikings killed millions. Raiders, too. I think her lone exception may be the Brewers, because they have done remarkable things for society.

I don’t subscribe to her theory, because I think nicknames, above all, should be creative, engaging and provide a connection to place, while hopefully leading to a wealth of logo and color options. But it’s another great reason to applaud New Orleans’ selection for new NBA team name.

Pelicans, as far as I know, only swim, fly and eat fish. Sure, fish have feelings, but I can’t think of any fish team names other than the Marlins, which are too big for pelicans to eat. Seems they’re safe from the PC police there.

But I just looked up what they eat on Wikipedia. Sometimes, I learned, they eat turtles and ducks. Good thing Maryland and Oregon don’t play in the NBA.


Patrick M. O’Connell is an award-winning writer and editor who has covered news and sports for publications throughout the Midwest since 1998. One of these days, he might actually win a fantasy baseball league. You can follow him on Twitter @pmocwriter.


great piece. being a banana slug (UCSC), I heartily agree.

BTW, the Stanford mascot (cardinal) is no longer a tree. apparently just a color.

tyson    Feb 1, 04:28 PM    #

Great piece, Patrick. I have a question for Brooklynites. If we could re-name the Nets or the soon-to-be Brooklyn Islanders, what would we call them? The Dodgers?

Austin    Feb 2, 08:55 AM    #

As a longtime fan of the baseball Angels, I’m impressed that they’ve never changed their mascot but have renamed their city a half-dozen times.

Ken Bradford    Feb 2, 09:07 AM    #

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