Players told to get a grip

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Sure, NBA players have reached a level in their chosen field that most of us will never meet in any pursuit.

But in some ways, they're oh, so human. Consider the chief controversy of this preseason, which amounts to a mass resistance to change.

The object of this obstinate hue and cry? The slightly more orange, slipperier-when-wet ball the league has decided to use. Players predict more turnovers and missed shots when the league begins its regular season tonight using a new microfiber ball instead of a leather one.

But given the vitriol hurled on the subject, one might think the NBA had slapped permanent ankle weights on every team's top scorer or decreed that no one could make more than the minimum salary.

"I hate it," Washington Wizards shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson said after practice last week. "You get so used to playing with the old ball, but this one, it's like an outdoor ball, a ball you'd see on the And 1 tour or something."

He said it will have a noticeable impact on early-season play.

"I think a lot of people who used to make shots will be missing, seeing the ball slip out of their hands," Stevenson said.

Stevenson was only reiterating a view that has been offered for months by some of the league's biggest stars. The NBA introduced the microfiber ball this summer in what the league billed as a stab at consistency.

But Miami Heat star Shaquille O'Neal quickly carped that "it feels like one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store - indoor-outdoor balls."

His coach, Pat Riley, agreed with O'Neal's description and called the ball "horrible."

Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, one of the game's top ballhandlers, derided it as "extremely sticky" and labeled the switch a "big transition."

Union director Billy Hunter told The New York Times his phone has been ringing off the hook with complaints.

Players believe the ball gets slippery when covered in the sweat that flies early and often in NBA games. (League and Spalding officials contend that the surface actually absorbs moisture better.)

"Yeah, the overall consensus is that when it gets wet, it's harder to handle," Wizards forward Caron Butler said.

Butler actually has fewer qualms about it than many of his peers. "It's real grippy," he said. "It puts me in mind of the college ball. And the thing is, when we were all coming up on the playground, guys would bring a variety of balls - Fusions, Spaldings, ripped balls. Even if the ball has got a hole in it, you've got to play with it. I don't know what the big deal is."

Commissioner David Stern hopes more players take that practical stance. During the NBA's tour of Europe earlier this month, he seemed less than 100 percent committed to the change, saying the league was still testing its new instrument.

But he announced last week that the ball was around 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."

Stern said the new balls perform more consistently under a barrage of tests than the old leather balls, which varied substantially.

"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."

Not surprisingly, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban disagrees with Stern and says he has the facts to support his case.

Cuban had University of Texas-Arlington physicists test the new ball recently, and said preliminary results show that the microfiber composite ball doesn't bounce like the leather ball and that it can become slippery.

According to the results released Sunday, the ball bounces 5 to 8 percent lower than typical leather balls when dropped from 4 feet, and the new ball bounces 30 percent more erratically. Researchers also found that it's less absorbent than leather, causing it to be more slippery when moist.

Spalding will continue to sell leather balls to recreational players. In fact, the company's Web site has a custom ball-finder feature. If you tell it you're an adult male with advanced hoop abilities, it suggests a leather ball as the best one for you.

But the site also calls the new ball, available for $99 retail, "the most techologically advanced on the market."

The ball change is the league's first since 1970. Spalding used former players Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson in developing it. And the surface is similar to those of balls used in college and international play. The NCAA has used composite balls in tournament play for the past four years and many high schools have used them for much longer, so most NBA players have probably shot and dribbled with them.

But think of the pros as virtuosos and the basketballs as their instruments and their pain is more understandable.

If a leading surgeon was about to cut into your brain, would you hand him an unfamiliar brand of scalpel? If Yo-Yo Ma was set to go on stage at the Kennedy Center, would you shove a brand-new cello between his expert fingers?

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan has no time for such artistic temperaments. "If they could dribble and pass and shoot with the old ball," he said, "they can do it with this ball. They'll get used to it."

The ball does feel different. With a more rubbery, synthetic feeling surface, it comes off as a deluxe version of the indoor/outdoor balls so popular on your local playground. Its seams don't come to a point on each side, but instead, flow together into circles that frame NBA logos.

With 9,722 official NBA shot attempts, Antawn Jamison would surely qualify as an expert on the feel of basketballs. The new one looked fine spinning off his right hand last week as he swished jumper after jumper from the top of the key after practice.

"I love the new ball," he said afterward. But he bore a half-smile that suggested he may or may not be telling the whole truth. Pressed for more, Jamison showed the diplomatic skills that make him a team leader.

"With the old ball, the more you used it, the better it got," he said. "This is the opposite. But it's not like anybody has an advantage.

"There's no need to complain," Jamison concluded. "I think we got that out of our system in the preseason."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Changes to other balls

Baseball -- Rawlings says the ball hasn't changed since 1974, when the surface was converted from horsehide to cowhide.

Football -- The cowhide ball Wilson makes for the NFL hasn't changed since 1941.

Hockey -- In Glas Co. has produced the standard rubber puck since 1991. Before that, teams provided their own.

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