NBA

A Murder in Israel Caused Washington’s NBA Team to Change Its Name

Daniel Snyder changing the name of the Washington Redskins in the face of the latest round of criticism wouldn’t be a first in the history of the city’s sports teams. The NBA’s Washington Wizards played under a different name until a shocking assassination in Israel nearly a quarter of a century ago.

The Washington Wizards have had multiple homes and names

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The Washington Wizards were decades in the making.

The NBA granted Chicago an expansion franchise in 1961, and the team played one season as the Packers in recognition of the city’s meatpacking industry. However, the name didn’t sit well with football fans, whose Chicago Bears had a bitter rivalry with the Green Bay Packers.

The name was changed to the Zephyrs after one season, which turned out to be the final season in Chicago. In 1963, the team was moved to Baltimore and nicknamed the Bullets by the investment group headed by Abe Pollin in a nod to a franchise that played in the 1940s and ‘50s.

In 1973, they became the Capital Bullets after Pollin built the Capital Centre, followed a year later by a switch to the Washington Bullets. They would play under that name until 1997.

An assassination in Israel leads to the rise of the Wizards

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The Washington Wizards’s Abe Pollin was the NBA’s longest-tenured owner at the time of his death in 2009. He also owned several other teams, including the NHL’s Washington Capitals.

Pollin was also heavily involved in philanthropic causes, particularly in the Washington, D.C., area. That work, his wealth, and his time spent in the nation’s capital put Pollin in contact with many powerful people, and his circle of friends included Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

On Nov. 4, 1995, the Western world was horrified by news that Rabin had been assassinated by a gunman after attending a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Pollin went to Israel to attend the funeral, and the time traveling to and from allowed him to reflect both on what had just taken place and on how violent crime was impacting Washington, D.C.

Four days after the funeral, Pollin made an announcement:

“My friend was shot in the back by bullets. The name ‘Bullets’ is no longer appropriate for a sports team.”

The Bullets’ nickname was never intended to convey violence. Rather, it was connected to the team’s marketing of its style of play on the court – “Faster than a speeding bullet.” But now the decision was made to move in a new direction.

A contest to rename the Washington Bullets

The Washington Wizards trace their history back to the Chicago Packers of the early 1960s. |  John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The Washington Wizards trace their history back to the Chicago Packers of the early 1960s. | John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Even before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the Washington Bullets front office was considering a complete makeover. They were coming off losing records in 11 of the past 12 seasons, and 1994-95 was their worst mark of the bunch at 21-61. New logos and uniforms in conjunction with the move to a new arena were seen as a way to boost fan enthusiasm and sell merchandise.

When owner Abe Pollin gave the go-ahead, Bullets management worked with Boston market to start a contest in which fans would have the chance to rename Half a million submissions produced more than 3,000 candidates for the new name, and Pollin trimmed the list to five:

  • Dragons
  • Express
  • Sea Dogs
  • Stallions
  • Wizards

A vote-by-phone system was created, generating a $1 donation to ant-violence initiatives for each ballot cast, and the Washington Wizards name prevailed.