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NBA's new ball gets bounced out

After complaints and minor injuries, Stern surprisingly relents and says the league will ditch synthetic and go back to leather on Jan. 1.

December 12, 2006|David Wharton and Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writers

First, NBA players complained about the feel of the league's new synthetic basketball. Then they filed a labor grievance because they were not consulted about the change.

Now a rash of minor hand injuries -- pro basketball's version of the paper cut -- has finally persuaded NBA officials to switch back from microfiber composite to traditional leather.

The old-style balls will return Jan. 1 and be used through the remainder of the 2006-07 season, Commissioner David Stern announced Monday evening.

"Our players' response to this particular composite ball has been consistently negative, and we are acting accordingly," Stern said in a brief statement.

The decision came as a surprise from a commissioner who had staunchly defended the ball through the first two months of the season.

Stern relented after a number of high-profile players, including Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, reported that the composite material -- its surface meant to provide "superior grip and feel" -- cut and scraped their hands.

An industry expert called the NBA's midseason back-and-forth unprecedented in the history of modern American sports.

"There hasn't been anything like this that I can remember," said John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence, an industry newsletter.

The return to leather, first reported by ESPN.com, elicited mostly positive responses in the league.

"When are we going back?" Clippers guard Sam Cassell asked. "Maybe I can make some three-point shots now."

Brent Barry of the San Antonio Spurs was similarly happy.

"You didn't have many complaints about the old thing," he said. "There was no reason to put out a new Coca-Cola."

Teams have three weeks to get reacquainted with the leather ball in practice, but some players did not like the idea of changing back so quickly.

"I loved the old ball, but now I've gotten used to the new ball," said Lakers forward Luke Walton, who leads the NBA in three-point accuracy.

"Now I've got to get used to the old ball again," Walton said. "If my three-ball percentage goes down, I'm filing a complaint."

The NBA had not changed its ball in 35 years. Stern said that Spalding approached the league claiming it had something more uniform, durable and easier to grip.

The league was entering unfamiliar territory, sporting goods industry experts said. Football had not modified its ball significantly since its early years, and almost a century had passed since Major League Baseball changed from the "dead" to the "lively" ball.

Even in more recent "juiced" ball seasons, manufacturers insisted the ball was unchanged.

Soccer used a stitchless ball in the World Cup, drawing mild criticism from goalkeepers. The NBA's transition was not nearly as smooth.

The composite newcomer drew criticism from the moment training camps opened across the league. Players said it bounced differently off the floor and off the rim.

Shaquille O'Neal of the Miami Heat compared it to a cheap, toy-store ball. Though it purportedly offered "moisture management," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said "it just kind of slips out of your hand."

In mid-October, Stern told reporters that he intended to "stay the course" but would monitor the situation. He cited shooting and turnover statistics as proof that the change was beneficial.

Then came reports of cuts and scrapes, players wearing bandages on their hands.

"My assistant coaches just passing the ball to the players, their hands are breaking down, they're getting cracked fingers over this ball," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.

Two weeks ago, the players' union filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, and Stern acknowledged it had been a mistake to authorize the change without more input.

Consumer activist Ralph Nader entered the fray this week, delivering a letter to Stern's office.

"Why continue to use inferior equipment that damages game quality and causes undue physical harm to players?" Nader asked.

At the same time, the league was facing controversy regarding a crackdown on player complaints during games, which had led to an increase in technical fouls.

In his announcement Monday, Stern said he valued player opinion in regard to the type of basketball used by the league.

"Although testing performed by Spalding and the NBA demonstrated that the new composite ball 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," he said.

But he also seemed to leave open the possibility of developing another alternative to leather.

"We will work with our players and our partners at Spalding to determine the best possible ball for the NBA," he said.

Marty Brochstein, editor of the Licensing Letter, a New York-based market research firm, predicted the NBA will try to "tweak the ball and do something so they can bring it back."

"No organization likes to admit that it made a huge misstep like this."

*

Times staff writers Mark Heisler and Mike Bresnahan contributed to this report.

david.wharton@latimes.com

greg.johnson@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

New ball: good or bad?

Through the first six weeks of the season, nine teams are averaging more than 100 points per game using the microfiber composite ball. Last season, only five teams averaged 100 points (* Statistics are through Dec. 10):

2006*

Team Points (FG%)

Phoenix...112.2 (.493)

Denver...108.7 (.466)

Golden State...105.3 (.478)

Utah...102.9 (.486)

LAKERS...101.9 (.483)

Washington...101.8 (.447)

Seattle...100.7 (.457)

Milwaukee...100.6 (.470)

San Antonio...100.1 (.474)

2005-06

Team Points (FG%)

Phoenix...108.4 (.479)

Seattle...102.6 (.459)

Washington...101.7 (.447)

Toronto...101.1 (.454)

Denver...100.3 (.461)

Miami...99.9 (.478)

LAKERS...99.4 (.453)

Philadelphia...99.4 (.458)

*

Sources: NBA, basketball-reference.com

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