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Hail or fail? Here's how Washington reacted when the Bullets became the Wizards

Dan Snyder and the rest of the Washington Football Team better hope their new name goes over better than DC's NBA name change did.

WASHINGTON — The Washington Football Team’s rebrand is not the first name change for a pro sports franchise in Washington, D.C. Twenty-five years ago, the city’s NBA team changed its name. 

But Dan Snyder and the rest of the Washington Football Team better hope their new name goes over better than that one did.

The year was 1997. And fan reaction to the Washington Bullets' new nickname, the “Wizards,” was not so magical.

“You're kidding me?” one fan said to a WUSA9 reporter after being informed of the announcement.

“The Wizards? That’s disgraceful,” another said with a shake of the head.

Longtime D.C. sports personality Steve Buckhantz, who served as the Wizards play-by-play announcer for more than two decades, said people still come up to him on the street upset about the Wizards name change.

“I can't tell you how many times people have said, and they still do, they need to go back and call them the Bullets,” Buckhantz said. “And I say, 'I agree with you but it's much easier said than done.'" 

Credit: Steve Buckhantz
Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier, hosts of "On the Road with Buck and Phil" podcast.

Buckhantz, who now co-hosts a podcast called “On the Road with Buck & Phil,” remembers when then-owner Abe Pollin decided to change the Bullets' name because he felt like it condoned gun violence. Then, polled the public for new names.

Back then WUSA9 even had a call-in line so viewers could share their own ideas, which ranged from “Gridlocks” to “Whips," “Pols” and “Windjammers.”

But Buckhantz thinks the new name was always going to be Wizards, and said he never got the sense the team was bothered by the public backlash to the new name.

“I think there was so much talk about the name change, and on their part, so much promotion and publicity and sort of excitement, whether it was manufactured or not, that I didn't get that sense at all," Buckhantz said. “I know there were people like myself that grew up watching this team, when they were in Baltimore and then finally in Washington, that were never going to be happy with the name change. But we understood why Pollin did it. And we understood that it was going to happen.”

It appears the Wizards have been trying to cast a spell to turn back the clock ever since. First, the team shifted back to the franchise's old red and blue color scheme. Then, they dropped the Wizard from the logo altogether.

In fact, since Ted Leonsis bought the team in 1999, the “Wizards” have mysteriously vanished from the team’s look altogether.

“It's potentially possible that Pollin was legitimately concerned about the name and what it inferred at a time when the D.C. violence was really bad,” said George Perry, who worked as a sports marketing executive for 23 years, including more than a year with Washington's football team. 

He’s now a business professor at George Mason University.

“So, there may have been some good intentions,” Perry said. "But it may not have gone outside of the boardroom as to making that decision. And once it hits the market, it's too late.”

Perry said it does not appear the Washington Football Team has made that mistake with its name change.

“Hopefully, they have done all the research ahead of time to make sure that it aligns with their history," Perry said. "Make sure that it isn't so far different that it alienates former fans [who] were big fans of the former colors and the former team name but is new and refreshing and exciting. And looking back it seems like they've at least made some of those steps. We'll see how the launch goes."

Perry said what the Washington Football Team does after the name reveal is almost more important than the name itself. He said the franchise needs to use the relaunch to try and reclaim the franchise's proud history and clean up its tarnished image.

RELATED: DC sports stars weigh-in on possible new name of Washington Football Team

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