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It was supposed to bring the NBA into the future of sporting goods technology. Instead, it ended up becoming nothing more than a bizarre, obscure three-month experiment that was a spectacular failure.
The year was 2006 when the NBA, in conjunction with its official partner Spalding, introduced what was dubbed the New Ball. The league had decided to do away with the traditional leather ball in favor of a microfiber composite one, the rationale being that the composite material was widely viewed by the sporting goods manufacturing industry as the future. They were cheaper to produce than leather balls, and they were supposed to feel broken in from the get-go. And by the early 2000s, several college and high school leagues had already adopted the synthetic ball.
From Spalding’s point of view, it only made sense that the NBA would get with the times and go synthetic.
"Right off the rim when I first started gripping it, I didn't like it. It felt like plastic.”
“We had been talking to the NBA for a while about how 100 percent of high schools and colleges in the country had already switched over to microfiber composite basketball,” says former Spalding VP of Marketing Dan Touhey. “And we asked: Isn’t it time to take the league to the next generation of technology in basketball?”
After roughly two years of preparation on Spalding’s part, the NBA announced the New Ball on June 28. Held at the NBA Store in New York City, the launch event included former commissioner David Stern, Celtics star Paul Pierce, and Inside the NBA’s Kenny Smith. Touhey was also there that day to represent Spalding.
“That was exciting. It was a great day,” Touhey recalls of the launch event. “We really felt that we had the next generation of material that had been accepted at any other level, and it was exciting to be a part of something like that.”
It was all downhill from there.
Every NBA player was shipped a New Ball that summer so they could begin practicing with it. Many players were immediately suspect of its feel.
“Right off the rim when I first started gripping it, I didn't like it,” says 14-year NBA vet and current ESPN The Jump co-star Stephen Jackson. “It felt like plastic.”
Whatever discontent was bubbling under the surface during the offseason exploded into a full-scale P.R. nightmare when the balls were implemented into training camps in October. Stars like Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Shaquille O’Neal, and Ray Allen did not hesitate to trash the ball in public. The New Ball became a continuous storyline throughout the early part of the 06-07 NBA season.
“It's changed a lot of what we are and who we are,” Allen said of the ball in 2006. “At the beginning of the year, I kept an open mind to it. Overall, you see the league, shots aren't like they used to be. Every player I've talked to, to a man is in disagreement with the ball."
Common complaints with the ball were that it became slippery when wet, that it didn’t bounce as well as the leather, and that its surface had more friction, leading to players report they were getting cut-up hands.
“I saw a lot of guys with Band-Aids on their fingers that said they were getting that,” Jackson says. “So a lot of guys were complaining about it.”
"I saw a lot of guys with Band-Aids on their fingers. So a lot of guys were complaining about it.”
Always one to stir up the pot, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban—who predicted there would be “missed shots and ugly rebounds bouncing weird ways and off of guys’ hands”—requested that the University of Texas at Austin’s physics department commission a comparison of the old and new ball.
“Did the NBA handle the introduction of the new ball the right way? It's too early in the season to get fined,” Cuban cryptically wrote on his blog that October, prior to his request of the study.
It turns out that this study backed up much of what the players were saying.
“We studied the basic properties of material because most of the complaints we heard from Mavericks players were that the ball just didn't feel right, and we were told the ball slipped out of their hands. And that sometimes it was too abrasive on their hands,” says UT-Austin physics professor Kaushik De. “So we took this all into account and translated them into physics principles."
While the cause of the reported cuts could not be explained, the study found that the New Ball bounced 5 to 8 percent lower when dropped from 4 feet and that it bounced 30 percent more erratically than its leather counterpart.
“The two balls were almost identical when they were dry,” says De. “But the leather ball changed very little when it got wet, whereas the rubber ball became very slippery. It’s like driving on a dry road versus driving on an icy road: The results are going to be disastrous when you try to drive the same way on an icy road that you would on a dry road.”
As uproar over the New Ball continued into December, the NBA Players Association eventually got involved, filing two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The union felt that the players were not properly consulted before the ball was implemented, a point Stern eventually conceded.
“I won’t make a spirited defense in respect to the ball,” Stern said at the time, as quoted by the New York Times. “In hindsight, we could have done a better job. I take responsibility for that.”
On December 11, the NBA officially admitted defeat on the New Ball.
“Our players' response to this particular composite ball has been consistently negative and we are acting accordingly," Stern said in a statement that day. “Although testing performed by Spalding and the NBA demonstrated that the new composite basketball was more consistent than leather, and statistically there has been an improvement in shooting, scoring, and ball-related turnovers, the most important statistic is the view of our players.”
While the players welcomed this move—“It was just a feeling like you got your girlfriend back,” says Jackson—it blindsided Spalding, whose executives only found out about the decision from news reports. The company was still under the impression that the New Ball was just going to need some getting used to, and that controversy surrounding its was temporary.
“I think I understood [Stern’s] rationale; I certainly wish that the way he had gone about it was a little bit different,” says Touhey. “He didn’t consult with us before he made the decision and announced the decision. So we found out on ESPN; we didn’t find out with a call to our CEO. So I think that could have been respectfully done a little better, especially in lieu of the fact that our CEO and David had a longstanding relationship.”
Despite its tumultuous three-month reign of terror, the New Ball had little impact on the greater landscape of the NBA. Spalding continues to be the league’s partner. And there has been no movement since for the NBA to revert back to synthetic.