The New Jersey Swamp Dragons? It almost happened

Taylor Glascock for ESPN

Over the summer, I enlisted several design experts, including Tom O'Grady, the NBA's former creative director, to help me rank all 30 team logos. O'Grady sifted through his archives, and unearthed a treasure: mock-ups of all the proposed uniforms, court designs, logos, shooting shirts, and warmup jackets -- most of which have never been made public -- the New Jersey Nets conjured when they nearly changed their name to Swamp Dragons two decades ago.

Yes, this happened. It was a flashbulb moment for any NBA geek growing up in the Tri-State area -- a goof only the sad-sack Nets would try. Recovering O'Grady's trove of lost designs was the only excuse we needed to take a trip down memory lane with all the key players.

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.

JERRY COHEN, ONE OF THE NETS "SECAUCUS 7" OWNERSHIP GROUP: We were always asking: "How could we get more fans?" It was tough just getting to our games. We hired Jon Spoelstra to change our whole marketing effort.

DAVID GERSTEIN, CO-OWNER: New Yorkers just didn't come out to New Jersey.

SPOELSTRA: We were dead last in merchandising sales. Some manufacturers weren't even making our stuff.

O'GRADY: They were like a minor league team. Jon was selling the opponent: "Come out and see Shaq, or MJ, and not us!"

SPOELSTRA: My first idea was to change the name so New Jersey wasn't even in it. We played in East Rutherford. It was a small town, with a tax base of something like $10 million. We went to officials there and said, "We want to change your name, here's a couple million bucks for the rights." And we could turn around and sell the naming rights to Nike, and become the Nike Nets.

It just ended up being too much government.

DAVID STERN, FORMER NBA COMMISSIONER: I always appreciated Jon's originality. He was always trying. He cared.

In 1993 and 1994, the expansion Toronto franchise was choosing its name. Dragons was among the finalists, along with Huskies and Raptors. Spoelstra liked the "Dragons" name, provided Toronto went another direction.

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.

BILLY PAIGE, FORMER NETS DIRECTOR OF MERCHANDISE AND PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT: Everybody likes dragons. Dragons are cool. They always will be.

ALAN AUFZIEN, CO-OWNER/CEO: I thought it was a very good idea. It was different.

Spoelstra's next step: get O'Grady and the league's creative team on board.

O'GRADY: I thought he was kidding. We were totally off the map. It was off the charts wacky. But Jon was persistent. He would say, "We're the Nets. What is a net? It has no intrinsic value." And in the 1990s, this wasn't so insane. It was all about bright colors, and bold fashions. Alexander Julian designed those teal jerseys for the Hornets, and they took off.

DICK SAKAHARA, DESIGNER OF SEVERAL TEAM LOGOS: It was the era of cartoon logos.

PAIGE: This was the time of the Raptors, Grizzlies, and Hornets. Everyone wanted to change their logos because of the Hornets. Kids loved it. I knew if we wanted to appeal to kids, we had to do something with the logo -- at least.

SPOELSTRA: I wanted kids wearing Swamp Dragons T-shirts to Knicks games.

Step 2: Get the commissioner to back the change. Spoelstra and O'Grady pitched the idea in Stern's office.

SPOELSTRA: David told me, "This is the stupidest f---ing idea I've ever heard."

O'GRADY: He did say that. It wasn't the first time he said something like that. I had an open-door policy on dumb ideas.

STERN: If they say I said that, I'm sure I did.

O'GRADY: David's a smart guy. He knew it was dangerous. There would be a backlash. The Nets weren't the Walt Disney Co., rolling out the Mighty Ducks name. They were the Nets. Did they have the people in place to really execute this properly?

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.

RUSS GRANIK, DEPUTY COMMISSIONER: None of us were thrilled with it. Our sense was to focus on the substance, and not the name. The Nets had a history that meant something -- with Dr. J, and the American Basketball Association. Maybe fix your marketing problems by making the team better.

STERN: I decided not to stop it. I was confident the [Nets] owners would shut it down. They weren't a particularly daring group. And you know, the Meadowlands was an environmentally elite site, with wonderful wildlife. It was protected. It was a swamp. Swamp, to me, is not really a bad word.

GRANIK: There was nothing vulgar about it. If David had opposed it, it wouldn't have gone any further. But we took the position that this was the Nets' choice.

Stern told Spoelstra to get the backing of all seven New Jersey owners.

SPOELSTRA: They rarely agreed on anything. It was amazing. You'd ask them whether the light was on, and two guys would vote yes, two would vote no, and three would abstain. But I made my pitch, and all seven voted yes. It was stunning.

COHEN: I thought the idea was over the top, but I liked the notion of a new identity.

AUFZIEN: It would spark publicity.

With the Seven on board, the Nets and the NBA began the work of a name change. The league spent $500,000 to protect the name and any markings they would produce. The Nets choose a teal, purple, and black color scheme, and the league hired Sakahara, an L.A. designer who specialized in animal forms, to sketch logos.

SAKAHARA: I thought, "Oh, cool, I get to draw a dragon!" They said, "No, a swamp dragon." I said, "What's that?'"I didn't give a whole of thought to the swamp. I was just excited to draw a dragon. I called him, "Swampy."

PAIGE: I chose the colors -- that greenish turquoise, the purple and black. I don't really know why. Maybe it was the Hornets. Maybe it was because I had young daughters who liked those colors. Maybe I was just trying to be different.

O'GRADY: The jerseys where the dragon takes up the whole thing -- those would probably have set David Stern back 10 years. It would probably also be a top-seller today with Mitchell & Ness.

They settled on a primary logo featuring a scowling dragon breathing fire, and spinning a ball on its finger.

O'GRADY: There are hints of the Boston Celtics leprechaun there.

They experimented with everything: court designs with a giant dribbling dragon streaking across mid-court; audacious shooting shirts and warmup jackets with dragons of varying sizes, and flames on the sleeves; and much more.

O'GRADY: We threw the kitchen sink out there. We figured, 'Why half-ass it?' Some of them look like wrestling tights. It's like, "Hello, NASCAR."

PAIGE: It was so cool. It would have gone global.

O'GRADY: The people in the league office -- they'd kill me over this today. It's too busy. It's too hard to shrink down into small jersey patches. It's too much. But the right answer is in there somewhere.

O'GRADY Some of the court designs, where the whole area inside the 3-point line is painted purple, or green, or whatever -- that would have been a problem. Remember when the Rockets painted that area blue? It looked cool, but we found that players wearing blue uniforms just disappeared on TV. They vanished. David was so pissed. On this one, he would have told me, 'Yeah, this works great -- except when you have purple or green teams.'

STERN: That was a concern. We had a product to put on the air. We can't have anything that impairs your ability to follow the players.

The Nets needed a supermajority of the league's 27 owners -- its Board of Governors -- to approve the change, and they started by courting the most powerful among them: Jerry Buss from the Lakers, Detroit's Bill Davidson, Jerry Colangelo of the Suns, and a few others.

SPOELSTRA: They all loved it - especially Jerry Buss. They were some of our most enthusiastic supporters. (Jeanie Buss said she doesn't remember her father talking about the name, but that knowing his sense of humor, she wouldn't be surprised if he liked it).

As the vote of the full Board of Governors neared, news of the proposed name change leaked -- and drew a predictable backlash.

SPOELSTRA: Someone from [Gov.] Christine Whitman's office called me and said they didn't like the Meadowlands being referred to as a a swamp. Well, that's what it is. I don't see any cows grazing there. (Through a spokesperson, Whitman said she didn't recall the Swamp Dragons saga.)

COHEN: Of course, the Meadowlands is in a swamp. It was a colorful name, but I started to wonder if it might draw more ridicule than anything else. How would sponsors feel about sponsoring a team called the Swamp Dragons? We had to think about all of that. I don't know if Chuck Daly [hired in 1993] would have come to coach the Swamp Dragons.

O'GRADY: We spent four or five months on this, and suddenly there was a pushback. We were getting hammered. Hammered. We played around with maybe just calling them Fire Dragons -- to save the dragon, but veer away from the swamp.

SPOELSTRA: Fire Dragons didn't come from us. We wanted Swamp Dragons. The funny thing is, that swamp caught fire every summer anyway. The water would literally burn because of all the chemicals in it. Talk about fire dragons.

The Board of Governors voted by fax, 26-1, to approve the name change.

SPOELSTRA: David called me screaming, "What the f--- is going on?" I asked what he was screaming about. He told me the vote came in, 26-1, in our favor. Well, that's terrific. What's the problem? He told me: "No, that isn't terrific, because the one dissenting team was you -- the Nets."

We voted against our own name change. I thought he was kidding. If your own team votes no, you can't go ahead with something like this.

STERN: I knew if we just let it move along, it would stop under its own weight.

The Secaucus 7 rotated voting duties. It was Gerstein's turn to vote when Swamp Dragons came before the Board.

PAIGE: I had such a great relationship with David. I just couldn't believe he didn't want to do it in the end. He always seemed interested, and happy with the idea. Somebody must have said something to him.

SPOELSTRA: I always thought David [Gerstein] was the Nervous Nellie of the group. He's a terrific guy, though. After David [Stern] called me, I finally got [Gerstein] on the phone, and tried to get him to reverse his vote. He said he had just gotten nervous, and couldn't vote for it. Cold feet. I didn't even know they rotated votes. Alan Aufzien would have voted 'yes.'

AUFZIEN: I was about trying things. If you don't try, you never know.

GERSTEIN: I don't recall the vote, but we all thought it was inappropriate in the end. The name just wasn't right. I mean, would they be the Brooklyn Swamp Dragons today? The rest of the league would have done whatever we wanted, but we decided collectively to vote against it.

COHEN: Looking back, I'm glad we changed course. It would have been demeaning to the league. Why take the ridicule? We went through a lot of tough times, but then we reached the Finals. Is that the name you really want in the Finals?

O'GRADY: I thought it was really gonna happen. We had all the merchandise design done. The Nets just never did anything right back then.

PAIGE: All that work, down the tubes.

The Nets ended up settling for a logo and uniform change in the late 1990s. They ditched the red-white-and-blue striped "NETS" wordmark, and the tie-dyed jerseys that briefly accompanied it, in favor of a tilted shield. But they played with other logos, including some with the lettering rendered as electronic wiring -- an early attempt to play on the word "Internet," which, of course, contains the word "net."

They even experimented with one logo that contained a bizarre, wombat-like animal.

O'GRADY: That wombat animal, whatever it is, sort of looks like a dragon. It was our attempt to salvage Swamp Dragons without anyone noticing.