At its essence, basketball really comes down to just a boy (or a girl) and a ball. And as corny as it might sound, there’s a deep, tactile connection between the two, an almost intimate relationship. Watching a great player pick up and handle a basketball is like watching a virtuoso musician pick up and play their instrument—there’s effortlessness and simple elegance to their movements, a conspicuous comfortableness.
So, when National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern unilaterally replaced the league’s leather ball with a microfiber composite one at the start of this season, it was perhaps surprising only to him that his decision went over about as well as New Coke did. After a steady, two month drumbeat of complaints from NBA players about funny bounces and cut fingers as well as a formal grievance from their union, Stern suddenly reversed course this past week. Starting Jan. 1, the leather ball will be back.
So, what was the point of all this? After all, the old ball, although it hadn’t been changed in 35 years, certainly wasn’t the target of any controversy. Stern, though, claimed that the new ball would be “more uniform and more consistent” and could be used right out of the box. The new NBA, it seemed, had no patience for pre game rituals like breaking in a leather basketball.
But the more I listened to Stern, the more I sensed where he went wrong. To hear him tell it, the ball is just another variable in the NBA’s long, complicated equation (ending in dollar signs). So, it’s no surprise that he turned once again to his favorite strategy—ruthless standardization—to improve it.
Now, contrast this with the players’ comments about the new ball.
Shaquille O’Neal: “It feels like one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store.” Ray Allen: “It’s changed a lot of what we are and who we are.” LeBron James: “The only thing that we love the most is the basketball—Why would you change something that means so much to us?”
Notice a difference?
For most kids who grow up playing basketball—from the Shaquille O’Neals of the world to those with no shot at making it to the NBA (like me)—our first basketball WAS a cheap, rubber ball from the toy store. So, playing with a leather ball for the first time often marked a milestone in your life. It meant you had graduated from the playground to a real hardwood court with glass backboards. Leather basketballs, in other words, equalled accomplishment.
And for an accomplished NBA player, dribbling, passing and shooting a leather basketball is perhaps the only consistent thing in his career. Jerseys change, rules change, venues change, but the unmistakable sound and feeling a leather ball makes when you spin it in your hands, is something so fundamental, it’s become sacred.
That’s the real reason the players objected so strongly to the new ball. It wasn’t because of all their dire predictions of higher turnovers and lower shooting percentages—none of which came true. It was about respect, about tradition and about preserving some of the mystique of the sport.
Stern, to his credit, finally recognized this last week and that’s why he changed his mind. Because, in the end, the NBA really comes down to just a boy and a ball.