Ballin’ Ben Franklin, Father Knickerbocker, and Lucky the Leprechaun: Representations of Early American History in NBA Team Logos

3588_philadelphia_76ers-secondary-2015Big news out of Philadelphia earlier this week, as the city’s NBA team, the 76ers, introduced an “updated brand identity.”[1] For now, the team has released the new logo set, though updated uniforms are also reportedly in the works. That new logo set  amounts mostly to slight revisions of existing logos, but also includes a secondary logo featuring a bespectacled Benjamin Franklin donning a blue jacket emblazoned with “76,” red culottes so as to expose knee high and team colored-striped socks, and blue sneakers. Suffice it to say that my excitement about my prospective move to Philadelphia this fall just increased ten-fold.

But “Ballin’ Ben Franklin,” as he has been informally dubbed, is not the first NBA team logo to nod to early American history. In fact, the concept of a cartoonish character from yesteryear was once a staple of several professional basketball team logos, though it has gone out of style in recent years. In hopes of providing those readers of The Junto who double as sports fans with a lighthearted break from grading exams and final papers (and in an effort to attract some of that ever-fleeting 18-34 age demographic), I present a not-at-all-definitive-or-exhaustive-but-still-pretty-detailed breakdown of NBA (and ABA) team logos featuring early American figures:

dpgefter6bc54kekjna7tgm1hPerhaps most famously, the Boston Celtics team name and logo pay homage to the city’s expansive Irish American population. While the team officially describes the individual depicted in the instantly-recognizable logo as a leprechaun, the pipe-smoking figure—clad in black breeches and white shirt, three leaf clover-patterned vest and bowtie, and black derby hat—perhaps more closely approximates a modern and more charitable take on the stock image of an Irish immigrant popularized in the 19th century American press.[2]

Less well-known is the New York Knicks’ original logo. New York’s team name (officially the Knickerbockers), of course, refers to descendants of the city’s Dutch settlers (a nickname popularized by Washington Irving, who published the satirical A History of New-York from the Beginning of 6031the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker). The Knicks’ original logo featured a basketball-dribbling figure known as “Father Knickerbocker,” who wore matching royal blue knee-high pants (“knickerbockers”) and coat, an orange vest, white gloves, and a black tricorn atop his head.[3]

The Denver Nuggets’ current logo set (and the one before it) concentrates heavily on Colorado’s mountain scenery, though one rarely-used secondary logo does feature a pickaxe. That pickaxe was a staple of the team’s visual identity during its formative years: The original Denver Nuggets played in the National Basketball League in 1948-49, and were absorbed into the newly-created NBA the following year (though they only lasted one season before disbanding in 1950). Their inaugural logo amounted to a crudely-drawn gold miner of the mid 19th century sort. That general imagery was resurrected when the American Basketball Association’s Denver franchise changed its name from “Rockets” to “Nuggets” in 1976, a nickname carried over to the NBA, which Denver joined in 1976. It might be a stretch to identify the 1970s logo alongside the more obviously early American characters discussed above, but the basketball playing miner did wear what appears to be a floppy-brimmed miner’s hat and sported a decidedly 19th century beard.

SquiresSeveral other ABA teams during the 1960s and 70s also featured nicknames and logos that more clearly referenced early America. The logo of Louisiana/New Orleans Buccaneers, who played three seasons before packing up and moving to Memphis, was a shirtless and shoeless pirate who wore red cut-off pants, a large hoop earring and red bandanna, and who (what else?) dribbled a basketball. The Virginia Squires‘ original logo looks an awful lot like Father Knickerbocker, only in red, white, and blue, sans gloves, and with a white ruffly shirt. The Kentucky Colonels, who are most commonly linked visually to their stylized “KC” logo of the team’s later years, initially featured a goateed hillbilly donning a black hat running alongside (or perhaps being chased?) by his dog. He, too, is pictured dribbling a basketball. Though he looks more like a Confederate Civil War general to me (perhaps it is the goatee), the actual order of Kentucky Colonels dates back to the War of 1812. And finally, the San Diego Conquistadors bring the West Coast into the discussion, with their logo a fierce-looking Spanish conquistador decked out in full armor and weaponry.

It’s probably safe to say that the Conquistador’s nickname and logo wouldn’t even be considered for a professional sports team today (indeed, the team changed its name to the Sails in 1974). While other pro sports leagues continue to be embroiled in controversy over the uses and misuses of American Indian nicknames and imagery, there are currently no NBA teams with an Indian mascot, nickname, or logo. The Golden State Warriors, however, used to. In spite of its nickname, the team doesn’t currently depict a “warrior” at all, choosing instead to focus its logos on Bay Area landmarks. Its most recent visual depiction of a warrior looked like a space age superhero. But the team’s nickname originally did reference American Indians. When the franchise began in 1946, they were located in Philadelphia, thus bringing us full circle back to the City of Brotherly Love and basketballing early American figures. The logo during the 1940s and 50s featured a shirtless and shoeless caricature of a Native American with a single feather atop his head.[4] Predictably, he is dribbling a basketball, much like the 76ers new Ballin’ Ben Franklin is today.

What do you think of the Sixers’ new logo? Which of the above is your favorite, and how do your own research interests affect your perception and reaction? And (most importantly), what’s with (almost) all of these logos dribbling? I get that it’s an important skill, but can’t colonial New Yorkers, revolutionary Philadelphians, and antebellum Irish immigrants shoot, dunk, rebound, or play defense? I’d be willing to bet Mr. Franklin would have a solid post game, and Father Knickerbocker has the look of a classic chucker.


[1] “Big news” being relative, of course, and perhaps limited to those of us early Americanists who share a similar passion for the world of sports and geek out over every detail when the two worlds collide (that would be me).

[2] Regardless of the logo’s possibly-racist undertones, I think we can all agree that it’s a vast improvement over the team’s earlier depiction of the leprechaun/Irish immigrant, which was used from 1950-1968 and may or may not give me nightmares.

[3] According to the Knicks’ website, the first sports team to be called the “New York Knickerbockers” played baseball, not basketball, and was “the first organized team in baseball history.” A modified version of this logo was recently adopted by the Knicks’ NBA Developmental League affiliate, the Westchester Knicks. I am not a Knicks fan, but might consider becoming one if they brought back Father Knickerbocker on a full-time basis.

[4] Actually, the Philadelphia Warriors’ first logo, used from 1946-1951, featured that same generic American Indian dribbling what looks more like a volleyball than a basketball. The logo was modified to make it look more like a basketball in 1951.

20 responses

  1. Definitely Franklin. I might become a 76’ers fan (I watch hockey, not basketball) in order to wear Franklin on his shirt.

  2. Shockingly, I’m all in favor of the new Franklin logo, not least because I know he would have been a monster in the post. (Get it?) [ed.: I missed your post joke in the original. Oops.]

    And because I can’t help myself, I’ll also share one of my favorite jokes about the Boston basketball team. I once reminded my students that if not for the immigration of the 1840s, the team might be called the Boston Puritans, which would have been a little less exciting, but they could have told you beforehand who won the game!

  3. How about the 1970s Cavaliers logo? Combined with the Rochester/Cincinatti Royals, I think we can make a case for Ohio as a hotbed of latent Royalist sentiment.

    • Ha. You would bring in the midwest, Paul.

      In my original draft of the post, I included the Cavs, along with a few other teams with (increasingly) tangential links to “early America,” but initially decided against including them since their team name had no direct reference to early America.

  4. Fan of the new 76ers logo. But my question is, what would Poor Richard think about a team that tanks for the first pick, year in and year out? Or about Poor Iverson’s equally catchy aphorism, “We talking’ ’bout practice”?

    • “Many have quarrel’d about [basketball],
      that never practiced it.”

      Poor Richard’s Almanack, revised and updated edition, 2015.

  5. Is it sad I want a Ballin’ Ben Franklin t-shirt? Of course, my loyalties would remain with the Celtics. The trials and tribulations of being a sports fan. Thanks for this post!

    • I was born and bred with Mr. Knickerbocker, but I totally want a ballin’ Ben Franklin t-shirt. Sadly for the Sixers, they may have a bigger audience for those among early American historians than their own dwindling fan base.

  6. How did I not know about Chris Creamer’s before now? I’m blaming you in advance, Chris, for the many hours of otherwise productive work time I’m bound to devote to this site!


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