On April 3, 1783 Writer and satirist Washington Irving was born in New York City. He best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” but I will always love him best for coining the name of New York’s basketball team!
In 1809, Irving published his first major book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Through the Knickerbocker pseudonym, Irving poked fun at the city’s self-important Dutch elite, in which Knickerbocker was a fairly common last name. He also pulled an elaborate prank in anticipation of the book’s release, posting “missing person” adverts in city newspapers, claiming Knickerbocker, a Dutch historian, had gone missing from his hotel room.
Once he published A History of New York in December 1809, it was an immediate hit, and eventually the term “Knickerbocker” became a pseudonym for a Manhattanite. Irving’s Knickerbocker was defined by his old-fashioned ways, such as insisting on wearing knee-breeches long after most men began wearing trousers, which is why we now call short pants Knickerbockers!
In 1946 Ned Irish founded the New York Knickerbockers, which became one of the founding members of the Basketball Association of America. But the iconic Knicks may have been called something different if not for Washington Irving.
Illustrations from the collectionjs of the the New-York Historical Society: Above, Erastus Dow Palmer’s “Washington Irving,” 1865. (Gift of Mrs. Anna T. E. Kirtland, as a memorial to Mr. Jared T. Kirtland); and below, an unidentified artist’s, “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” ca. 1850-1867 (Gift of the Estate of Mr. George Shepherd).