Since 1968, New Yorkers sports fandom has generally split along the lines of Knicks/Yankees/Giants and the rhyming Jets/Mets/Nets. In fact, the ABA Nets in part chose their name when they moved to Long Island to rhyme with those other teams (they had been the Americans).
But they were almost the New Jersey Swamp Dragons; the name change was considered in the mid-1990s. Zach Lowe of ESPN has an oral history of the oddly fascinating story.
JON SPOELSTRA, FORMER NETS PRESIDENT: We had no redeemable history. We had never won anything, and our name — it was like calling the Yankees the “New York Second Bases.” The team never had a chance with that name…
SPOELSTRA: The Dragon came up right away, but we needed something to identify it locally. I was sitting in my office with Jim Lampariello, our vice president, and I just said, “Every time I look out the window here, I see this swamp. And every time I think of swamps, I think of swamp rats. What about that?” He just said, “I don’t think that’s very nice. What about Swamp Dragons?” I loved it. Dragons are mythical, and fun.
Nets management liked the idea. Commissioner David Stern… not so much. To put it kindly.
SPOELSTRA: David told me, “This is the stupidest f—ing idea I’ve ever heard.”
RICK WELTS, FORMER PRESIDENT OF NBA PROPERTIES: There was a moment in that meeting when I really wondered how thick the plate glass was, because David came very close to picking up Jon, and tossing him out the 15th floor of Olympic Tower onto 5th Avenue somewhere. He was enraged to have his brand subjected to such a terrible idea.
Jon was a genius. He transformed our industry — how teams handle ticket sales and broadcast rights. He just had one really bad idea.
The other owners ended up backing the name change — remember, this was the era of the cartoony Toronto Raptors logo and the Mighty Ducks in hockey. News of the change leaked, and there was a backlash from the people of New Jersey, but that didn’t stop the momentum. There were mock-ups of team jerseys and warm-ups, what the court would look like, and the rest. Then at the last minute it was the Nets seven-man ownership group that pulled back on the idea. Read the entire story, it’s fascinating.
Ultimately future Nets owners — Bruce Ratner first, now Mikhail Prokhorov — tried a very different tactic to improve the Nets financial fortunes: They moved the team to Brooklyn. Which is as much a real estate deal as anything (the two are developing lands around the new arena) but it did give them a new image, complete with the black-and-gray Jay-Z designed logos.
What would help the Nets image more is putting together good teams again.