The Clippers, long the second fiddle to the Lakers juggernaut, had an exciting season in the NBA bubble. The huge acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George served as the end of a makeover by owner Steve Ballmer. It’s probably been decades since the word “Clippers” was mentioned quite so often. So how did the team get its name in the first place?
The rise of the LA Clippers
To tell the story of the team’s curious moniker, it starts before they were the Clippers at all. The squad got its start as a 1970 expansion team called the Buffalo Braves, according to the Democrat & Chronicle. Based in Buffalo, NY, the team’s first two years were disastrous as an expansion team. How can you get the best players when the top talent is signed elsewhere?
Time reports that head coach Jack Ramsay and star forward/center Jack McAdoo were the people who turned things around. They made it to the playoffs the next three seasons. Shortly after, Ramsay moved on to his more famous tenure as Finals-winning coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Braves owner Paul Snyder ran into issues staging games in Buffalo. A college ball squad had previous rights to the same arena and wasn’t willing to budge. The constant scheduling conflicts led Snyder to look for a buyer.
How the Clippers got their oddball name
Snyder’s wheeling and dealing led him to buy the Boston Celtics, while former Celtics owner Irving Levin took over the Braves. Rather than build a new arena, he moved the team to California. They landed in San Diego, according to NBA.com. The new location gave them a chance for a new look and a new name.
Here, finally, is where the oddball name comes from. San Diego was an incredibly busy port at the time, with big, iconic ships defining the vibe of the city. The most striking ones were colloquially referred to as “clippers.” If you want to become a sports juggernaut, why not name yourself after the most notable behemoths related to your city?
That’s what Ballmer inherited when he bought the team. Despite the fading memory of the team’s origins, it’s now tied to the team’s identity to change. Thankfully, his team is not the only one with an eyebrow-raising name.
Why some NBA team names are stranger than you think
Some names are so iconic, that we no longer even question them. A moment’s thought, though, and the idea of an LA-based team called “the Lakers” is strikingly odd. Perhaps even stranger than the Clippers, who at least have a name drawn from local lore.
The Lakers got their name when they moved to a place that had, well, lakes. In a lush Minneapolis setting, it makes perfect sense, right? But unlike the Clippers, when they moved to a new place, they didn’t bother changing their now context-free name.
The Utah Jazz have a similarly odd backstory concerning their strange name. Most sports teams are named after something fierce: an animal, a storm, a type of warrior … Some even simply call themselves the Warriors outright.
So why is Utah’s team, in a noted conservative state, named after a style of music noted for smoky nightclubs and opulence? Because they were once located in New Orleans, the most iconic jazz city in the world. Without the name change, that left the current New Orleans franchise to go with an animal name, the New Orleans Pelicans.