- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2008

The evidence keeps mounting. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the only sports franchise ever inspired by a movie, change their goofy name to the Anaheim Ducks, and they immediately win the 2007 Stanley Cup. Sixteen months later, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, baseball’s equivalent of a homecoming opponent, trim their name to the Tampa Bay Rays and, lo and behold, they’re in the World Series.

We seem to have hit on something here, sports fans - though, to be honest, it’s been going on longer than just the last couple of years. Indeed, it might be what’s secretly behind the SuperSonics‘ move to Oklahoma City, where they’re now the Thunder. The owner insists it’s because Seattle wouldn’t give him a new arena, but he may just have wanted to alter his club’s karma, the way the Ducks and Rays did. After all, it has been 30 years since the Sonics won their lone NBA championship.

Need more convincing? OK, take the Virginia Tech Hokies. They weren’t always the Hokies, you know. For a long time, they were the Fighting Gobblers - birds of a decidedly different feather. But once their mascot changed costumes in the early ‘80s, they went from college football afterthought to national power (though Frank Beamer might have had something to do with it). Why, they’ve even begun to make some noise in ACC basketball, and their women’s softball team just went to its first College World Series. Could a bunch of mere Gobblers, fighting or not, have done that?

There are three ways teams can go about this name-change business: They can relocate, they can opt for a different nickname or they can go to the extreme of changing the name of the institution. Memphis State did the latter in the ‘90s, not long after the NCAA stripped it of its 1985 Final Four appearance. With a few strokes of the president’s pen, it became the much loftier sounding University of Memphis.

The switch had the desired effect. Under John Calipari, the hoops program has entered a golden age, coming within seconds last March of winning the national championship. (A short time later, one of the Tigers, point guard Derrick Rose, was the No. 1 selection in the NBA Draft, another first for the school.)

It makes you wonder, really, why more teams don’t do this. I mean, people in the Witness Protection Program do it all the time. (That person in the next cubicle at work? In his old neighborhood, they might have called him Knuckles.)

Bankrupt companies do it, too, as a means of distancing themselves from past disasters. So why shouldn’t a team/program/university that’s looking for a fresh start, a clean slate, do the same - especially when the upside can be so great? (And as an added bonus, all that Officially Licensed gear that’s been sitting on the shelves gathering dust suddenly becomes a collector’s item.)

Think about it. The original Cleveland Browns were shut out of the Super Bowl for three decades; then they morphed into the Baltimore Ravens and, within five years, won their first Lombardi Trophy. The Quebec Nordiques got even quicker results. In their very first season as the Colorado Avalanche, they captured the Stanley Cup.

Then there are Marquette’s politically incorrect Warriors, who hadn’t made much of a dent in the NCAA tournament since winning their only title in 1977. Once they adopted a new nickname, the Golden Eagles, they were back in the Final Four.

Heck, the NFL’s Rams have turned the trick twice. They moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946 and won the title in their sixth season. Then, in ‘95, they moved to St. Louis and won the title in their fifth. (So if they continue to scuffle along for a few more years, don’t be surprised if they put in a call to North American Van Lines.)

Nowadays, even individual athletes are getting into the act. The most recent example, of course, is Chad Ocho Cinco, but my all-time favorite is Rod Smart. A nondescript running back from Western Kentucky, Smart probably would have disappeared without a trace if he hadn’t, in a fit of self-promotional brilliance, put “He Hate Me” across the back of his jersey when he played in the ill-fated XFL. Soon enough, everybody knew who he was - and he was returning kickoffs for the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl.

That’s not to say Name Changers are always better off. The Washington Wizards, as we all know, are still waiting for their second Larry O’Brien Trophy - to pair with the one they won long ago as the Bullets. And the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim just got bounced in the first round of the playoffs despite having the best record in the majors. (Perhaps they’re being punished for not sticking with “Anaheim Angels,” which was good enough to win them the World Series in ‘02.)

Still, it’s worth the gamble for anybody in sports looking to change his luck. In fact, at this point, it might be the only thing that could save the Cubs from another century of heartbreak.



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