Sources: Not enough good leather to go 'round?

Updated: October 8, 2006, 11:13 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The NBA has controversially introduced a new basketball for the first time in 35 years, prompting an obvious question: Why?

One potential factor: Spalding, which has manufactured NBA balls since 1983, was apparently eager to get out of the leather business.

New NBA Ball
AP Photo/John Marshall MantelAccording to results released Sunday, the new ball bounces 5 to 8 percent lower than typical leather balls when dropped from 4 feet.
NBA sources told ESPN.com that Spalding urged the NBA to switch to a composite model because it was having trouble securing the "consistent" leather needed to keep manufacturing the ball that has been used for decades.

At the NBA's annual rookie orientation in September, according to sources, first-year players were told by league officials that the change to a microfiber composite ball was caused largely by Spalding's struggles to keep finding the specific leather used for the NBA model.

Spalding, though, contends that the change was made because the new model is simply "a better ball." That's according to Dan Touhey, Spalding's vice president of marketing, who told ESPN.com on Thursday that the composite ball can be produced with "more consistency, a better grip and more advanced technology."

"That's not the reason at all, far from it," Touhey said of any leather shortages. "It is a fact that there are very few manufacturers remaining that produce leather. But when you go down the list of reasons why [the ball was changed], that would be No. 999 out of a thousand.

"We're always looking for a better material, a more consistent material. Leather, because it's a natural material, is inherently a more difficult material to source. A composite material, because it's a man-made material, is easier to source. … The benefit is consistency. That's probably what the point was [at the rookie orientation]."

It remains to be seen if the widespread outcry against the new ball will prompt the league office to consider switching back to leather before the regular season opens Oct. 31. But that seems highly unlikely, given the stance shared by NBA commissioner David Stern in Spain on Thursday.

"Every organization plays with a synthetic ball -- high school, college, FIBA and the like -- and so the time of the synthetic ball is here," Stern said of his league.

The chorus of complaints has nonetheless been getting louder by the day since Miami's Shaquille O'Neal ranted against the switch Monday, likening the composite model to "one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store."

New Jersey's Vince Carter, Detroit's Rasheed Wallace, Denver's Carmelo Anthony, Washington's Gilbert Arenas, Phoenix's Shawn Marion and the Suns' reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash are among the big names who have since voiced their displeasure with the change.

The most common complaints are that the ball is too sticky when dry and too slippery when it gets wet, much slicker than a wet leather ball.

NBA Old Ball
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe old NBA ball will be missed by many.
Miami's Antoine Walker raised another concern earlier this week, saying, "The problem with this ball is that it wears down very easily and that's not good. During the course of a game, if a guy is 10-for-10 in the first half and now you've got to switch to another ball, that makes a difference. We should have stayed with the old ball. It was better. Those old balls last a long time and you could play with them when they got old. These balls, once they get slippery, it's going to be difficult."

Wallace told the Detroit News: "Terrible. I don't know why they did it. The thing that [upsets] me about it is, that's a major part of playing and you can't just change it without getting the players' opinions on the ball before you change it."

Yet much like the dress code instituted by the league last fall and its subsequent decision to ban the compression tights sported by several top players throughout the 2005-06 season, changing the official ball -- according to the current collective bargaining agreement -- is another measure that the NBA has the right to impose unilaterally, without consulting the NBA Players Association.

NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson, promoted from senior vice president of basketball operations to executive vice president in June, defended the new ball Tuesday, insisting that it has a better grip than its predecessor when wet, not worse.

"It's a better ball," Jackson said. "But as a product matter, composite balls are used in every league throughout the world. And they've been used in every level of play over the last 10 years domestically in the NCAA and also in high school."

The composite ball has been used at the past two All-Star Games and was modified by Spalding after the first composites were tested by NBA players in 2005. The league dispatched a new ball to every NBA player over the summer and Jackson estimated in June that "99 percent" of the league's players grew up using only a composite ball.

But that hasn't hushed or even slowed an ongoing flurry of complaints.

"As a kid going up through high school and then college, you dream about playing with that leather NBA basketball," Mavericks swingman Jerry Stackhouse told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "This new ball is the one I played with in the backyard when I was 12.

"Nobody that ever played the game would want to change that ball. Nobody. Not Michael Jordan. Not Dr. J. Nobody."

Spalding, according to Touhey, was prepared for such reactions, knowing that protest is a reflex response to change.

"It takes time," Touhey said. "These guys are professional athletes. They get custom fitted for their shoes. Everything about their lives is about consistency. When you switch out the most important piece of equipment, players are going to be resistant to that.

"But we know it's a better ball, so we're comfortable."

Bulls coach Scott Skiles told the Chicago Sun-Times: "I think it was my sophomore year in college, the Big Ten -- or maybe it was the whole NCAA -- changed balls. Initially, everybody was kind of frowning on it, but within a couple of months, everybody was fine with it. That will probably be the case here."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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