End of an era as Spalding basketballs bounce out of the NBA
Will the culture continue to connect ‘balling’ with ‘Spalding’?
At the end of these NBA Finals, after the last shot is made or missed, after Chris Paul dribbles out the clock or Giannis Antetokounmpo tosses the ball toward the rafters to celebrate their first championship, a page in hoop history will quietly turn:
Spalding will no longer be the official basketball of the NBA.
If you don’t hoop, you might not care. But this is serious news for us citizens of Hoop World – players who care as much about the feel of the ball in our hands as the shoes on our feet. For those of us who need the rock like Jay-Z needs the mic or Colson Whitehead needs to write, any development with our most beloved piece of equipment must be checked.
So why the switch? And what could it mean for us hoopers?
The sportsman Albert Goodwill Spalding created the first basketball in 1894 at the request of the inventor of the game, James Naismith, and Spalding has been the official ball of the NBA since 1983. The brand also has become synonymous with the idea of what a basketball is – ask Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Meek Mill, Takeoff, G Herbo, Kanye West or countless other rappers who connect “balling” with “Spalding” on their records. (Special shout to Childish Gambino for “ball hard like it’s cement inside of my Spalding.”)
But Spalding’s sponsorship contract with the NBA expires after this 2020-21 season, and they were unable to agree on terms for a new deal. Spalding will continue to produce the official NBA backboards and rims, plus a full line of other basketballs, including the TF-1000 and my personal outdoor favorite, the Neverflat.
The twist is that the official Spalding NBA basketball is hardly ever seen in the mortal realms of Hoop World. If you pull up to a pickup game, college practice, morning YMCA run or AAU tournament, official NBA basketballs are rarer than a Ben Simmons 3-pointer.
That’s mainly because the NBA is the only league that plays with a 100% leather ball, which can be smoother and harder to handle than the composite material on virtually every other ball. The NBA rock also needs a lengthy break-in period to reach its mythical butter-soft state, which is why you often see pros with a ball that’s brown instead of orange. Spalding sent me one of its final NBA editions to play with, and while my J is known to be wet, it was tough shooting that thing, even after eight or nine sessions. The high degree of difficulty made me marvel even more at the touch and range of NBA guys.
But there is a chance this could change. Enter Wilson, which provided the official NBA basketball from the founding of the league in 1946 until Spalding snatched the rock in ’83. Almost every member of Hoop World has played with a Wilson, specifically the Wilson Evolution, which hit the court about a dozen years ago. This model has become so popular, the last time I finished a run at LA Fitness, finding my personal Evolution was like looking for one pair of Jordans at a Chicago Bulls game. The Evolution is made of a composite material with great feel and grip right out the box, not too sticky and not too slippery. It’s a shooter’s ball, and when you let that thing fly, it feels like straight cash all day.
I bet Steph Curry could shoot 60% from deep with this ball – but the NBA is not switching to the Evolution. “The Wilson NBA game ball will have the same leather material, configuration and performance specifications as the current game balls,” Christopher Arena, NBA senior vice president of identity, outfitting and equipment, said in an email.
Smart move. In 2006, when the NBA and Spalding tried to change to a basketball made of synthetic material, it was a bigger fiasco than the weight room at the last NCAA women’s tournament. This time, Arena said, the NBA worked with teams and the players’ union to develop the new game ball. It was introduced at the NBA draft combine in June, is endorsed by Trae Young and Jamal Murray, and has started to be distributed to NBA teams.
Chris Brickley, a top NBA skills trainer and consultant with Wilson, helped develop the new ball and has been using it in his workouts for several months. “They didn’t try to reinvent the wheel and make some special basketball,” he told me. “They kept it simple. They kept it how the NBA basketball has been.”
Hoopers from elementary school to Division I can wear the exact same shoes, shorts, socks, sweats, even underwear as NBA players. But when it comes to the most important item on the court, we fall back into the comfortable grip of leather that’s made in a lab instead of grown on a cow. (Calm down, PETA.)
Spalding isn’t ready to tank. Vice president Matt Murphy said in an interview that its market share grew over the past year. It still has its name on all those NBA and college backboards. It remains the official ball of leagues from high schools to FIBA to the legendary Drew in Los Angeles. It plans to release a new portable hoop that can be assembled in half an hour. “We truly believe that as long as we continue to innovate and deliver the very best products,” Murphy said, “we’re going to be the go-to brand for the player, for the athlete, for any person engaging with the game, whether it be in their driveway or in an arena or a gym or a park.”
Or a rap record. “Killin’ like Wilson” could be a bad look. But Wilson could soon be killing the game if its NBA basketball ever incorporates Evolution technology. It has already done that with its new WNBA ball, which debuted this season. It uses “Evo Next” materials that, according to Wilson general manager of team sports Kevin Murphy, have a different center of gravity to improve shooting and can absorb the sweat off your hands.
“The NBA game ball is special, and we made it for those players,” he told me. “We needed to deliver consistency and make sure we lived up to their expectations. And then hopefully, maybe, we’ll see where things go.”
That destination could be down here in Hoop World, where we try to make the ball do what it does in Hoop Heaven, but need more help than we want to admit. Until then I’ma keep rocking with the Spalding Neverflat on the playground, the Wilson Evolution on the hardwood – and letting those shots fly.