Secrets of the NBA ball: inside the Wilson factory


In all of its history, the NBA has known only two suppliers of balls, Wilson and Spalding. From 1945 until the start of the 1983 season, that is, 37 years, the NBA supplied itself from the Wilson brand, headquartered in Chicago, then, for another 37 years, the NBA used Spalding balls. . A contract that ended at the end of last season to land again in Wilson’s hands, for at least 10 years. Except that changing the ball used for each of the NBA, WNBA, G-League, Summer League, Combine, BAL, etc. matches involves great precautions, but above all a lot of risks. Changing the ball means changing a skier’s skis from year to year, changing a cyclist’s bike or making regulatory changes like Formula 1 will see next year. And if these examples are cited here, it is because we often hear about them. Surely more than the passage to Wilson balls which, if they knew some detractors, we are the subject of a very very big job to be delivered in the most perfect conditions or franchises and to NBA players.

And for starters, nothing has changed. Indeed, it is always in the same tannery, the last in activity of Chicago, the Horween Leather Co., that the leather of the NBA balls is prepared and processed. A family business, it has supplied inflatable leather for years and Wilson has not sought to change it. Especially since the geographical proximity has played a role, even if the balloons are then made in China. The design of the balloons isn’t Wilson’s only connection to China. Indeed, the choice of Wilson is also a strategic choice, which is based on the property of Wilson. Indeed, Wilson is the possession of the Amer Sport group, bought in 2019 by the Chinese giant Anta Sports. Thus, with a commercial distribution of Wilson balls, the NBA hopes to use the Chinese market to boost sales of its official ball in complicated times with the Middle Empire.

Taylor Emrey Glascock / LA Times

However, the work done in Chicago in the tannery factory remains very impressive. Indeed, it is a real work in the assembly line which is carried out on the leather which connects the treatments to arrive at a satisfactory result. Its color is treated there, its grain, its texture. The leathers are washed there several times in a process that lasts up to 22 days and begins with the selection of the beast. In the NBA, steers’ hide is used, as cowhide is too smooth and bullskin is too wrinkled. The ideal area to recover the leather located on the back and spine of the animal. And Skip Horween, whose tannery has belonged to the family for many years, appreciates the work of goldsmiths brought to a material far from its final state and even a little bluish when it arrives in the warehouses.

“The real challenge is that since each skin is different, you try to take something non-uniform, each skin, to make it as uniform as possible. We provide the marble, they are the ones who make the sculpture. »Skip Horween

Apart from the grain and leather, the measurements and capacity of an NBA ball are very clear and the league has labeled them according to these dimensions, the circumference of the ball should be between 74.93cm 75.565cm, the weight of the ball should be him be between 566.99 grams and 602.43 grams. Regarding the inflation of the balloon, that must be between a pressure of 3.4 kilos and 3.85 kilos per 2.5 cm square. Finally, an NBA ball, when it falls from 1m82, must bounce between 1m32 and 1m42 in height. Very precise measurements which obviously make it possible to have a few micro details, the same swells in the hands with each action.

Because the most important for the players, it is especially that the ball does not differ as little as possible or not at all from the old model, because it is their working tool number 1, the one which can modify all their output and that they have all mastered perfectly, to the point of knowing all the details in use. For Jose calderon, now a member of the players’ union and who has worked on the new balls, players are very alert to any change in the characteristics of a ball.

“As soon as you pick up a ball, you know if it’s heavier or if it’s more or less slippery. As soon as you dribble, you feel if the rebound is good or not, if there is too much pressure, too much air, or if it is not inflated enough. This is how we work. It is our main tool. »Jose Caldéron

Despite the greater attention paid to the making of this new swell, it still found several players to criticize it. Among them, names like Stephen curry, Joel Embiid, CJ McCollum or Paul George, who attributed to the new balls some reasons for their clumsiness at the start of the season. For others, there is nothing to put it back on the characteristics of the balls, like Luke walton, still a Kings coach at the start of the season, who considers that they are two similar balls and that the differences are tiny.

“I don’t see it other than a name on the ball and a distraction for the players. « Luke Walton

Obviously, NBA players only have the best balls available and match balls are very different in quality from balls sold in the store. Balls whose grain is not good or whose lines are not perfect can thus directly orient themselves towards something other than the NBA rooms. In NBA balls, we find eight layers of leather that allow optimal absorption of dirt on the ground and players’ sweat. Thus, an NBA ball is only at its maximum quality after use, the time that the leather is done well. And for Kevin Krysiak, director of product and research and development at Wilson Sporting Goods, all of these characteristics make an NBA ball an object of transmission in the NBA, a means of realizing that we are finally playing the best league in the world.

“The players will tell you, ‘Smelling the ball makes me feel like I’ve done it. « . They have dreamed of the NBA their whole life. »Kevin Krysiak

If the NBA takes so many precautions for the creation of its new ball, it is also because in 2006, the league and Spalding had tried to set up a new technology on the balls, to replace the leather by microfibers. Result, players very reassembled and an abandonment of the project after 3 months of experience. A precedent which therefore pushed the NBA to take the greatest precautions. Steve Kerr still remembers this new ball which caused a lot of loss of balls.

 » It was a disaster. « Steve Kerr

So this time around, the NBA prepared with the players. In total, more than 300 players were consulted during the various development phases, first through interviews and questionnaires, then physically, the players having certain prototypes delivered and being able to return to the engineers.
Engineers who are also working hard on technological innovations that could revolutionize data collection or arbitration, such as installing microchips in balloons, as can be the case in NFL for example . According to Wilson, this is an achievable goal within 5 years.

If anyone was in any case well prepared for the design of these new balls and to ensure that the majority of players have given their approval to go on such or such a model, it is Adam. Silver. He who already worked in the offices of the NBA at the time had lived very closely the scandal of the changes of balls in 2006, so it was out of the question to repeat the same mistakes.

“Adam Silver was at every meeting and at the heart of the 2006 controversy. He got it. If anyone is going to make the new Wilson Ball a success, Adam is that guy.  » Dan Touhey, former marketing director at Spalding

Some players were even consulted more than others. Playing in Chicago, Zach lavine has thus contributed a lot to the development of this new swell and has been present in many stages of the process. His player profile also corresponds very well to a good test user. Because shooters very quickly notice a problem in the alignment of the seams while a player who will dribble a lot will directly notice a grip problem. Lavine having both characteristics in his game, he was a good witness. Especially since at Wilson, we really wanted to add something more and not just become the NBA ball supplier.

“We wanted to make sure it didn’t just look like we took the Spalding logo off and put our own. It’s not to tackle Spalding, they did a great job, but we didn’t want to be there saying, ‘They did all the research and development part for us, and we just paid the NBA a lot to put our money in. logo on it. We wanted to put our imprint on that ball. »Krysiak

Same story with José Calderon, while around 5 prototypes of the new ball were needed to achieve a most convincing result.

“Every detail has been thought of. We were trying to get closer and closer to what the majority of players were telling us until we found what worked. »José Calderon

If the NBA has a list of 12 standards to be respected for the balls before their validation, Wilson also has his own, in addition, to avoid any quack. And the Chicago firm has for example a machine in Ohio, which tests the resistance of balls by putting them under the pressure of a dribble for 5 minutes, a machine called the « Scottie Piston ».

The first time Wilson balls were presented to players for playing real games was at the NBA pre-draft combine, where Wilson members observed player reactions to the ball. Since then, many have tested these new items and not all the feedback is exclusively positive. But on the NBA side, the dominant feeling is that a job well done and almost consensual.

“That’s why we partnered with the players was going to be the key to getting the ball integrated as seamlessly as possible. It does not mean that we will not have any player who, when giving his opinion on the ball, will say that he does not feel the same or will prefer the other ball, etc … I think it is inevitable, that’s okay, as long as we know we’ve gone through this process with the players and that the majority of the feedback has been, and hope to continue to be, overwhelmingly positive.  » Salvatore LaRocca NBA Global Partnerships President

Despite historically low percentages since the 2015/2016 season, concerns over these numbers are no longer really about new balls at this time, but perhaps a rule change and perhaps the return of the fans in theaters after more than a year of absence which certainly disrupts NBA players more than expected. On the contrary, the percentages of last year are most certainly to be credited to empty rooms.

And leather master Horween ends by paying a final tribute to the players who use his leather every night, with a very nice compliment to their technical abilities. Which also justifies the difficulties in creating a perfect ball which, even if it has changed, must not have changed.

“The best athletes in the world can tell you the subtle differences (between two balls) in such a way that you will have to measure with a micrometer and equipment. They can just smell it. « Sick Horween

Via Los Angeles Times


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