NBA Switches from Leather to Synthetic Balls

The National Basketball Association is switching balls. Gone are the old leather ones. In their place are balls made of a synthetic micro-fiber composite. Manufacturer Spalding say the new balls are easier to grip and provide uniform consistency.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The National Basketball Association is in the middle of one of the biggest changes of its more than 50 years, and that's saying something. This is the league that embraces change. When the game seemed too slow, it changed the rules to speed it up. When the players looked too scruffy, the league imposed a dress code.

Now the NBA's changing the basketball from the leather ball that's been used forever to a micro-fiber composite ball that officials say is better. Now they just have to convince the players.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: Stu Jackson, you're a high-ranking NBA executive. You've coached in the league and you've been around the NBA for a long time. Why is it necessary to change a leather ball that's been used with great and often wondrous success by players from Bill Russell to Jerry West to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Steve Nash?

Mr. STU JACKSON (Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, National Basketball Association): Well, at this point, we have an opportunity to use a product that will improve our game.

GOLDMAN: Meaning this new ball will lead to less showboating and more teamwork? No. But according to Stu Jackson, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations, there has been room for improvement with the leather ball that's been used since the league began.

No two cows are alike and each leather ball made from cowhide has been a little bit different from the next in color and shape. The leather balls have been very slick when new and they've had to be broken in before seeing action in an NBA game.

With the micro-fiber composite, ball-maker Spalding has addressed those apparent problems, says company spokesman Dan Touhey.

Mr. DAN TOUHEY (Vice President of Marketing, Spalding): Better grip, better feel, better consistency, better durability. And when you have a product that's better and you are a company that prides yourself on technology and innovation, you bring that to market.

(Soundbite of ball bouncing)

GOLDMAN: Dan Touhey spoke by phone from Spalding's test lab, where this machine - the bounce tester - measured the new ball's durability. Something called a co-efficient of friction test measured the new ball's grippiness. Testing went on for the past couple of years in the lab and out there where the micro-fiber composite meets the road.

(Soundbite of ball bouncing)

GOLDMAN: Basketball researchers acknowledge there's nothing like data from the court, and they have gotten an earful. The NBA's preeminent big man Shaquille O'Neal said the ball is terrible and that whoever made the change needs his college degree revoked.

Portland Trailblazer forward Raef LaFrentz, in his ninth NBA season, said after a recent practice that the pale orange balls get slippery when wet with sweat. He also said it feels strange at first shooting the ball.

Mr. RAEF LAFRENTZ (Forward, Portland Trailblazers): Your release point feels different. As it leaves your fingertips, it comes off a little more sticky.

GOLDMAN: And the result?

Mr. LAFRENTZ: I'll guarantee your shooting standards are going to go down for a little while until guys get used to it.

GOLDMAN: The NBA says that hasn't happened, at least during pre-season games. Stu Jackson says his department is monitoring shooting percentages and ball handling, and so far everything's consistent with years past. The league is banking on player complaints subsiding as the athletes get used to the new ball, although NBA commissioner David Stern says going back to leather could be an option.

Shaquille O'Neal, the ball's main critic, once gave himself the nickname The Big Aristotle. David Stern also might do well to dip into Greek philosophy and remind NBA players of Heraclitus, who said the only constant is change.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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