Leather ball will return on Jan. 1
It might be the most stunning ball reversal in hoops history.
Not even three months into the life of its controversial synthetic basketball, NBA commissioner David Stern moved Monday to hush scores of discontented players by shelving Spalding's new microfiber composite ball and authorizing a switch back to the old leather ball for all games starting Jan. 1.
The move would appear to be an unprecedented in-season change, in terms of primary equipment, for North American major professional sports leagues.
"Our players' response to this particular composite ball has been consistently negative and we are acting accordingly," Stern said in a statement. "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.
"In the meantime, we will work with our players and our partners at Spalding to determine the best possible ball for the NBA," he said.
Despite an unrelenting stream of player complaints about the new synthetic model from the first day of training camp in October, skepticism was high among players leaguewide that Stern would consent to a change during the season.
But with a number of prominent stars reporting cuts on their fingertips and hands caused by the new ball's high-friction cover -- Phoenix's Steve Nash, New Jersey's Jason Kidd and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki among them -- Stern was forced to concede that an in-season swap was unavoidable because the new ball is inflicting injuries.
ESPN.com reported Friday that league officials began contacting all 30 teams late last week to start gauging its supply of leftover leather balls from last season in case the decision to switch came quickly.
The hope now, according to sources, is that the league can get a playable supply of leather balls to each team by Christmas so teams can starting working them back into their practice routines.
It'll be up to the teams themselves, though, to determine how to find time to readjust to the old ball while finishing out this month's schedule with the new ball. This would seem to present a particular challenge for the Boston Celtics, who are the only team in the league scheduled to play on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. It appears that the Celtics will be required to play at Seattle with the new synthetic ball on New Year's Eve and then the leather version 24 hours later in Portland.
Some teams, furthermore, will obviously play more games with leather than synthetic, and vice versa. The league's 30 clubs won't have played the same amount of games until the regular season closes on April 18.
Such issues are why Nash, for all the cuts inflicted on his hands by the new ball, urged league officials not to make an in-season switch. Nash has been saying for weeks that the "friction-y" microfiber model "tears up my fingers," but Nash also told ESPN.com last week: "It's taken me two months to adjust to this new ball, but I've made the adjustment. I'm actually OK with the new ball now."
Reached Monday before the Suns' game in Orlando, the two-time reigning MVP blasted the reintroduction of the old ball on the fly as "a comedy of errors."
"I'm disappointed," Nash told ESPN.com. "I'm disappointed that they didn't seek more input from us before they [introduced the new ball] and I'm disappointed that we're changing the ball during the season.
"It's still tearing up my fingers, but after three months ... it's too late. I'm telling you, the [two] balls feel totally different. There's a different feel, a different weight, a different texture," he said.
League sources insist, however, that Nash's displeasure is rare among stars. NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson has been interviewing players for weeks and, according to sources, has heard much louder support than resistance for an immediate change.
Cleveland's LeBron James told local reporters last week: "We've used [the leather ball for] a long time. It wouldn't be hard to make the adjustment." Nowitzki told ESPN.com last week that he would "definitely" welcome an instant swap, adding: "I know our whole team would."
When reminded that he hasn't handled a leather ball since last season, Nowitzki disputed the idea that he'd need time to re-adjust.
"I think we're pretty much all used to the old ball," he said.
In a sarcasm-laced statement released Tuesday, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals denounced Stern's decision.
"PETA would like to offer a lifetime supply of cruelty-free hand cream to any NBA siss ... excuse me, superstar who'd be willing to give the composite ball another shot," said Dan Shannon, manager of campaigns for the organization.
The ball was slammed by dozens of players from the start as too sticky when dry, too slippery when wet and too unpredictable when it hits the hardwood, backboard or rim. Miami's Dwyane Wade scoffs at the perception that the new ball actually helps shooters proficient at banking shots in off the glass, telling the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel recently: "My bank shot is no longer existent. My game-winning shots, I'm telling you, it's [in the] past."
But Stern, according to sources, is not authorizing a change because of complaints about the new ball's feel and performance ... or even the widely held contention that players around the league were not sufficiently involved in the testing process.
The clincher was clearly the rash of cuts, which have been likened to paper cuts, on the hands of players and coaches throughout the league.
The NBA Players Association filed two grievances earlier this month with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the NBA with unfair labor practices over the league's implementation of the new ball and this season's crackdown on player backtalk to referees. When union chief Billy Hunter filed both claims, he told USA Today that dissatisfaction with the ball is "unanimous with players."
Hunter indicated Monday that the ball-related grievance would be withdrawn and conceded from the start that player injuries caused by the new ball, more than the grievance itself, are what prompted Stern's unexpected admission to The New York Times last Tuesday that the league handled the ball switch poorly from the start and would consider an immediate change.
"We're most definitely pleased," Hunter told USA Today on Monday after news of Stern's decision began to spread. "It was a sound decision. It wasn't working for the players. You can't have as many players speaking out against the ball and continue to use it. The players are going to be happy. It was the prudent and professional thing to do."
Spalding president and CEO Scott Creelman said in a statement that his company, which has been manufacturing NBA basketballs since 1983, "will work closely with the NBA to ensure a smooth transition and to determine the best product going forward."
It was not immediately clear if the league will attempt to make modifications to the microfiber ball in time for next season. The motivation for changing the ball from the start has never been fully explained, beyond the repeated insistence from Stern and other league officials that the synthetic ball was "better" and that the NBA no longer wanted to be the last basketball league in the world still using a leather ball.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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