NEW YORK — The introduction of a new ball to professional sports has been met historically with skepticism and sometimes controversy.
In baseball recently, modifications allegedly prompted ‘juiced balls,’ which led to more home runs. FIFA uses a different ball for every World Cup, and nearly every World Cup brings complaints and issues from players.
In 2006, the NBA implemented a synthetic ball — replacing the traditional leather — and it was a disaster.
“Whoever did that needs to be fired,” Shaquille O’Neal grumbled at the time.
Beyond that, athletes are, by nature, habit-forming and superstitious. A difference in feel could throw a psyche — and a jump shot — off-kilter.
With that in mind, the big change in NBA game ball manufacturers didn’t result in much of a change in the actual ball. Wilson, the company that will begin its multi-year deal with the NBA this season, made that a priority.
“For the NBA and the players association — I think everybody wanted consistency,” Wilson GM Kevin Murphy told the New York Daily News. “The idea behind the change wasn’t about fixing a problem, it was a bigger partnership transition. The ball on the court is the most important thing and we have to deliver. For us, consistency is king.”
Of course, the logo is different. Spalding was the manufacturer for the last 37 years, which followed Wilson’s run for the NBA’s first 37 years. It’s a symmetrical timeline entering the league’s 75th season.
But creating the new NBA ball started long before this season — around April of 2020 — and involved input from over 300 players. Murphy said there were five iterations of the ball. Some weren’t as popular.
“The prototype we had last year was terrible, I thought. It wasn’t the same at all,” Knicks guard Evan Fournier said. “We basically had to give them some feedback and obviously, it wasn’t good. Like, I remember the Wilson was so big and so thick, you could feel the difference in the ball. And as a shooter, it takes a lot of space obviously, so it wasn’t comfortable.”
Fournier appreciates the final product.
“They definitely changed it, and it feels the same [as the old ball],” Fournier said. “It really does.”
The pandemic complicated the process for Wilson, which was reliant on player feedback but couldn’t meet face-to-face. Instead, they sent packages of balls to gyms and doorsteps, hoping they’d be opened and used. It was a chase.
“It was a pretty scientific process and to try to do it and not be in-person was the biggest challenge of all,” Murphy said. “It was calls to players, teams, equipment managers telling them, ‘it’s out on your front porch, go get it.’ Chasing samples all over the place. Trying to get them on video calls for feedback. It was remote control development.”
Murphy added that the only miniscule difference from last season’s design is more ‘pebbles’ on the logo, or the dots that help with grip. Before going out to the NBA teams, the balls are also broken in by machines in Ohio that replicate dribbling the ball. The purpose is to soften the leather.
“These differences are something you and I will never notice. But pros will notice,” Murphy said. “[A player] would say with absolute conviction there were big differences and we couldn’t find them.”
For acclimation, NBA teams were given the new balls for training over the summer. Knicks guard Alec Burks notices the slight differences but doesn’t think it will affect his game.
“A basketball is a basketball. But I could see it affects a lot of different people,” Burks said. “It feels different. Something that you used for so long you’re always going to be a little bit hesitant but to me, it’s just a basketball.”