Testing the Basketballs, Part One: The Grip
(My research assistant and videographer in the pursuit of basketball science was Jackie Alvarado. She gets half the credit. And many thanks to the Wizards' PR wizards for providing the basketballs.)
Executive Summary of Our Part One Findings: A panel of experts, which included future D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray, several college basketball coaches and D.C. United players Troy Perkins, Ryan McIntosh, Bobby Boswell and Freddy Adu mostly agreed that the new, synthetic basketball had the superior grip while dry; it was soft and pleasing to the touch. However, many--but not all--of the experts found the new ball to be extremely slick and difficult to control when wet.
"There's no question this is slipperier," Gray said. "I'd choose the old ball. I mean, it isn't so perceptibly different that I'd say I'm not playing, but the ability to control the ball feels better with the old one."
The pumpkin was impossible to palm.
The Very, Very Long Version: First let me say that the original plan was to do four experiments, involving the old ball, the new ball and a basketball-shaped pumpkin. But the gourd we chose--while basketball-shaped--was very heavy and annoying to carry around, so you won't read too much pumpkin lovin' here.
Research assistant Jackie and I got the brand new basketballs from Wizards HQ, where we saw a three-foot tall Gilbert Arenas bobblehead that was being transported to a corporate sponsor. We briefly considered hijacking lil' Gil. His neck was swaddled in black padding, to keep him from bobbling.
After we got the goods, we headed on a mad dash to the friendly neighborhood Giant, and then to RFK Stadium, figuring an MLS goalkeeper would be an expert on gripping balls. So we showed up outside the United clubhouse with two basketballs and a pumpkin. ("What's wrong with you?" a United staffer asked.)
Starting keeper Troy Perkins wasn't sure if he wanted to participate, so we had plans to meet with then-third stringer Ryan McIntosh, who suddenly finds himself the backup after Nick Rimando's injury. But, as we learned throughout this journey, you just can't carry around basketballs without attracting a crowd, and in this case, the crowd consisted of professional soccer players.
First up was Alecko Eskandarian, who thought the old ball was the new ball and vice versa. I told him he was wrong, and he booted one of the offending balls down the hallway.
"That's crap," he said. "Are you sure? Where does it say?"
Luckily, McIntosh soon appeared and had no problem saying which ball was which. He was familiar with Shaq's comments about the new ball, but he was perplexed; the old ball felt slicker to his professional hands. (This thought, surprisingly, was repeated by several guest grippers, and by Caron Butler; they said that the new ball, when dry, has a superior grip. The moisture is the downfall.)
McIntosh had a much-easier time palming the new ball, when they were both dry. Then Perkins ducked out from the weight room, where he lives, and got involved in the experiment. He could tell by sight which ball was which, and he loved the new ball. "Ten times better," he said. "This has a lot more grip. They're all full of crap."
But then, McIntosh and I headed to the home dugout and poured some water over the basketballs, and suddenly everything was different. He could no longer palm the new ball--it kept sliding out of his grasp--but he had no trouble at all palming the old ball. The contrast was striking.
"Now I agree with Shaq," McIntosh said as he wrestled with the new ball. "This one's definitely a lot slippier. Slipperier?"
We went back inside and showed Perkins, who still liked the new ball better.
"I don't think it makes a difference," he said. "I think in an indoor environment this [new] one would be a better ball."
Then the ever-shy Bobby Boswell appeared, and began showing off his dribbling skills and his shooting form. He joined our panel of experts, and after the water test, he decided he liked neither ball; he didn't like the feel of the old ball, but he didn't like the slickness of the new ball when wet.
"When I decided to play MLS instead of NBA, it was because of balls like this," Boz said. "Aren't they the NBA; millions and millions of dollars? Can't they just say, 'We'll have a ball for every time one gets wet; we'll give it to, like, a poor kid?' It should be like Major League Baseball, they get one whenever they want a new one... I don't know man, I'm feeling it, it is slippery, but I don't know. I think if I had hands like LeBron James I could still..." and here, he started simulating dunks. Then he started showing us the dribbling moves he had learned growing up on the playgrounds of Tampa.
Then Freddy Adu appeared. Boz showed Freddy the old ball, explaining it dated "from when you were born, 22 years ago."
"Oooh hoo hoo, look at the rock," Freddy said, dribbling between his legs. "I like this [new] one better. This is a better grip." He felt the same way after the water test; "see, my hands are like glue, dog," he said. "I don't know about you, my hands are like glue. I'm a baller, what can I say?"
("Ask him what happened when we played one-on-one," Esky later said. "The first play, I elbowed him in the head and he didn't want to play any more. I won, 1-0.")
The next stop was CAA media day, where we spent lots of time talking basketballs with George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga, who spoke passionately about the superiority of the new ball, and only later told us that he's a consultant for Spalding. Anyhow, he's an honest man, so here's what he said:
"This [old ball] is a little rougher, and I can see where some players might like it because they've played with it and gotten used to it, but after they've played with that [new ball] for one season, they're gonna like it much better and never want to go back."
We tried the water test.
"First of all, moisture is good for the grip, as long as it's not too much," he said. "The problem is when your hands get sweaty and your body gets sweaty. Like now, I can almost palm the [new] ball, because there's a little bit of moisture. The problem is not a little bit of moisture, it's a lot. Real sweaty is bad. This test is really not, um, um, elaborate enough to prove one point or another."
Drexel Coach Bruiser Flint said the same thing; that a sprinkle of water could not replicate real sweat. He had never seen the new ball, and he actually preferred it, saying it had "a much better grip."
And Northeastern Coach Bill Coen wasn't interested in helping science.
"It's not what we use," he said. "If it would help us score baskets, I'd be more interested."
(Speaking of not interested, John Feinstein refused even to examine the basketballs.
"That would imply that I care," he said.)
The final guest expert was future D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray, whose office in the Wilson Building I visited. The councilmember dribbled the balls around for practice, until someone from Adrian Fenty's office called from downstairs to try to figure out what the noise was. Let's hope we haven't created a rift between the office of the future Council chair and the office of the future mayor.
Anyhow, as mentioned above, Gray had a clear preference for the old ball, both wet and dry:
"The traditional ball has a grainier feel to it, a better grip," he said. "And I think frankly in terms of when you shoot, to have it roll off your fingertips, this older ball you have a better sense of control. And the way that ball rolls off your fingers is critical to being able to have a good feel. A lot of shooting a basketball is touch. In fact, if you watch a lot of players, they're not watching the ball, they're watching the basket. And when you get hot, it's because you have touch....I like this [old] ball better. Maybe it's because I'm accustomed to this one."
Then he added a few final words of wisdom. "You know what?" he said. "At the end of the day, the good players will still be the good players, and the bad ones will still be the bad ones."
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