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25 years before the Commanders, a different Washington team had a name controversy

The NBA's Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards in the '90s at the direction of the team's owner, who felt the name no longer made sense.
/ Source: TODAY

The Washington Football Team has changed its name to the Washington Commanders, the culmination of a long process that began when the franchise announced in July 2020 it would retire its previous name after years of charges it was a racial slur.

The team is hardly the first to change names, though. In fact, it’s not even the first in its own city.

When Major League Baseball’s Montreal Expos relocated in 2005, they became the Washington Nationals. And in 1996, the city’s NBA team, the Washington Bullets, announced it would become the Wizards.

Spurs v Bullets
Washington Bullets forward Elvin Hayes, seen here shooting in a 1979 game against the San Antonio Spurs, is the franchise's all-time scoring leader.Focus on Sport via Getty Images

The Bullets were not one of the NBA’s marquee franchises, like the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers, but they had achieved a level of success, culminating in winning the league championship in 1978 and an appearance in the finals the next season.

The franchise was not unused to changing names, either. It began as the Chicago Packers in 1961 before adopting the name Zephyrs a year later. In 1963, it moved and became the Baltimore Bullets for a decade after late owner Abe Pollin purchased the team in 1964. The team turned into the Capital Bullets for one season and then ushered in an era of name stability when it was known as the Washington Bullets from 1974 until 1997.

And while the Commanders' move was made under a spectrum of pressure and calls for racial sensitivity, the Bullets elected to dispose of their name at the direction of Pollin.

Washington Bullets
Wes Unseld, seen here in a 1976 game, is considered one of the team's greatest players. A member of the 1978 championship team, he won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in 1969 and would go on to coach the Bullets for seven seasons between 1987 and 1994.Focus on Sport via Getty Images

A conflation of factors led to dropping the Bullets name. In the 1990s, Washington, D.C.’s image was one of crime, drugs and violence. Pollin could sense he needed to do something about the name.

“We haven’t made a final decision,” he told The Washington Post in 1995. “In the old days, our motto was ‘Faster than a speeding Bullet.’ That’s how we were envisioned in Baltimore. Today the connotation is a little different. It’s connected with so many horrible things that people do with guns and bullets. I don’t know. We’re considering it. We’ll make a decision this summer.”

Charlie Slowes, who is now the radio play-by-play voice of the Nationals, was the Bullets' radio announcer from 1986 until 1997, when the team went through the process of changing names. He echoed the idea that the city was looked down upon by people.

Washington Bullets v Los Angeles Lakers
At 7-foot-7, Gheorge Muresan, seen here in 1994, is tied with fellow former Bullet Manute Bol as the tallest player in NBA history. Muresan was with the team when it changed its name to the Wizards. Jon Soohoo / NBAE via Getty Images

“There was a sentiment then like D.C. was, like, the murder capital of the U.S.,” he told TODAY. “That’s how people perceived it. And so if you were anti-gun and -violence, that became a thing that he (Pollin) didn’t want to be associated with.”

The death of Pollin’s friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, also played a role in his decision.

“I just came back from Israel, where I attended the funeral of my good friend, Prime Minister (Yitzhak) Rabin,” he was quoted as saying by The Washington Post in 1995. “My friend was shot in the back by bullets. The name Bullets for a sports team is no longer appropriate. This franchise has a history and we’ll maintain that history.”

Bullets owner Abe Pollin holds the NBA championship trophy after his team's win in 1978.
Bullets owner Abe Pollin holds the NBA championship trophy after his team's win in 1978.The Washington Post via Getty Images

The team let fans have their say, asking them to vote on five finalists that, besides Wizards, included Dragons, Stallions, Express and Sea Dogs. The team didn’t reveal voting results.

The Wizards did not provide a statement to TODAY about the name change for this story, although the team did provide articles about the decision to move on from the Bullets.

Interestingly, the decision to go with Wizards was not well received by everybody at the time.

“When I hear (that) name I think about the Imperial Wizard or the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan,” Morris Shearin, then-president of the D.C. chapter of the NAACP, said after the name was revealed, according to The Washington Post.

Washington Bullets vs. Boston Celtics
The Bullets' Kevin Porter, seen in a 1975 game against the Boston Celtics, sports the red, white and blue uniforms the team wore for years. Dick Raphael / NBAE via Getty Images

Certainly, the circumstances that led to the Wizards differ from that of the Commanders, but adopting a new name is a delicate matter. Franchises often do that when moving cities, but doing so when staying put is rare. There’s an attachment that can exist when a team remains in its city and slaps a new name onto its uniform.

“Name changes are sticky stuff because your longtime fans are not going to like it. They don’t like change. They’ll fight it tooth and nail,” Slowes said.

“When I was with the Bullets, there were a lot of people who were like, ‘Why are we changing the name?’ You know, especially players, it feels like you wiped out part of their history when you change the name of the team they played for for years.”

Chicago Bulls v Washington Wizards
After the Bullets became the Wizards, the team welcomed a player you may know: Michael Jordan, who played with the team for two seasons between 2001 and 2003.G Fiume / Getty Images

The conflict between diehard fans who identify with the name and the need to respect the events of the world is something that has happened elsewhere in sports. Notably, the Cleveland baseball team will play as the Guardians for the first time in 2022 after previously being known as the Indians since 1915.

Dropping a name, whatever the reasons may be, can feel personal to fans who feel a bond with the team they cheer on.

“The name is what you call your favorite team from the time you become a fan, for the little kid with your dad or your granddad or whoever you watch the games with,” Slowes said. “That’s your team. That’s your team’s name. It’s like you changing your name to the ardent fan, you know? It’s like if you were a kid, and your name was Joe, and your parents (say), ‘You know, we got tired of Joe. We’re going to change your name to Dave.’

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards
The Wizards' color scheme has changed over the years and the uniforms today harken back to the franchise's roots. Here, Bradley Beal handles the ball against the Toronto Raptors during a game in 2021. Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

“Your team name is the team name that whoever got you interested in sports basically passed on to you the same way. This is your team. And I think people feel when you change the name, you’re wiping out history to them.”

Slowes said changing names wasn’t enough to completely turn off Bullets fans.

“You had people who were season ticket holders for the Bullets for years, it’s not like they didn’t come anymore because they changed their name to the Wizards,” he said. “If you love going and support your team in your city, you’re still going to come. That’s not going to be a reason to  keep you away. I think winning and losing is what keeps you away, or how you’re treated as a fan base by an organization.”

That's where things may get complicated for the Commanders. The franchise has won three Super Bowls, played in two others and won two NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl era. The team has struggled on the field in recent years, though.

Seattle SuperSonics v Washington Bullets
Chris Webber, #4, Juwan Howard, #5, and Harvey Grant, #44, of the Washington Bullets against the Seattle SuperSonics on Nov. 20, 1996, at the USAir Arena in Landover, Maryland. The trio would all be with the team the first year they played as the Wizards. Jerry Wachter / NBAE via Getty Images

Once one of the premier teams in the NFL, it last won the Super Bowl in 1992, the last time it played in the game. It’s won just three playoff games since that season, with its last postseason victory coming in January 2006. There were also charges of sexual harassment levied by 15 women who worked for the organization and a $10 million fine issued last year for improper workplace behavior.

“I think it’s part of a total remake,” Slowes said about the team's decision to change its name.

Are there any lessons that the Commanders can learn from the Bullets having changed their name in the same city years ago?

“I mean, they’re doing it under a different climate, I think,” Slowes said. “With Bullets, you were talking about violence, gun violence. I mean, this is something that was considered offensive, in a different way. It was a particular group of people, as opposed to maybe a reflection on violence in our city.”