Sports Outside the Beltway

Stern: NBA’s New Ball is Staying

Even though many star players hate it, commissioner David Stern says the NBA’s new ball is here to stay.

“We’ve been testing it and retesting it,” Stern said. “And I think that some of the dramatics around it were a little overstated in terms of the downside and not enough recognition of the upside.”

The upside to Stern is that all the new balls, made of a microfiber composite, feel exactly alike. No two leather balls were the same. Stern said it was customary for referees to go through a rack of balls to select the best one before each game.

Still, some players preferred it that way. Some have said the new ball is too sticky when it’s dry; others claim it’s too slippery when wet. Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash are among those wary. O’Neal has said the new ball “feels like one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store — indoor-outdoor balls.”

“Within certain parameters of the way you want a ball to perform again and again and again, it is performing extraordinarily well,” Stern said. “It doesn’t mean it feels the same; it may not even bounce exactly the same. It may do all the things that everyone says it may or may not do, but it’s a very good ball and the tests continue to demonstrate that it’s an improvement.”

Stern was speaking at the NBA Store, where the league announced a partnership with the personal computer company Lenovo. But once that was done, it was back to what has been perhaps the biggest headache the commissioner has faced this preseason.

NBA officials have stressed that most players grew up playing with the microfiber composite, but they may have underestimated the preference players have for leather. That’s even after Stern said Spalding wanted to make the change more than a year ago. “We said no,” Stern said. “We want to go back and do more tests and confirm to us that this move will be pain free — which, of course, it hasn’t been.”

Stern said he has handled the new ball and doesn’t agree with the complaints that it bounces differently from the old one. “It may behave somewhat differently in some circumstance or another … but I will say that whichever ball you take out of the box, it’s going to behave in that way consistently,” he said. “Every leather ball behaves differently.” “That’s the trade-off we’re making,” he added. “And we think it’s going to make a great improvement.”

I agree with Stern that standardization is a good thing, purists to the contrary. Still, one would think the people who designed the new ball could have come up with one that feels and performs almost exactly like the median leather ball did. When someone has spent 15, 20, 25 years playing with a certain feel to get to the top level of the game, they don’t want to change.

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