[Image above] The National Basketball Association debuted a new ball for the 2021–2022 season, and some players believe it is negatively affecting their game. Credit: slykai, YouTube
In the new December Bulletin that published online last week, our cover story looks at how ceramic and glass materials enhance performance and provide safety to sports.
As discussed in the article, early iterations of most sports equipment relied on natural materials such as wood, cotton, rubber, and leather. However, many types of equipment have evolved sometimes drastically over the years, leaving behind natural materials in favor of the enhanced performance offered by engineered materials.
While some materials innovations in sports are welcomed, others have led to controversy when the enhancement is considered to provide athletes an unfair advantage. For example, when Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit debuted at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, swimmers’ performance and speed improved so much that some claimed it amounted to “technological doping,” leading to the LZR Racer and similar types of suits being banned.
On the other hand, sometimes materials innovations are criticized for negatively impacting performance. Such is the case with the new ball being used by the National Basketball Association (NBA).
In May 2020, the NBA announced that sporting goods company Wilson would produce the league’s official game balls starting in the 2021–2022 season. Spalding has been the league’s official game ball partner since 1983, but Wilson originally produced the NBA’s official game ball for 37 years prior to that.
Though the NBA said the same leather and product specifications would be used in the new basketball, some of the players have cried foul. “It’s a different basketball. It don’t have the same touch and softness that the Spalding ball had,” LA Clippers’ Paul George said in a recent postgame interview, as quoted in an NPR article. “And you’ll see this year, it’s gonna be a lot of bad misses … I think you’ve seen a lot of air balls so far this season.”
Currently, compared to this same point in previous seasons, the 3-point percentage is the lowest since 2015–2016. However, in a statement, the NBA told NPR that comparing the shooting percentages so far this season to previous years was “difficult” because “percentages fluctuate so much throughout each season.” For now, the league plans to wait and adjust if necessary.
This season isn’t the first time the NBA has faced ball controversy. In the summer of 2006, the league introduced a synthetic basketball as a replacement for the leather one. They ultimately went back to the original ball midway through the season after many complaints about the balls tearing up players’ hands. Learn more about the 2006 controversy in the video below.