Basketballs

Part 1

I announced recently that I was unretiring again and reentering the wonderful world of free throw shooting. Up until several years ago I shot 100 free throws everyday and reached the point where I was a consistent 90% shooter. The most I ever made was 93 of 100 and my success led me to challenge Dick Vitale to a "shoot out" at halftime of a Duke-UNC basketball game. Dickie V didn't respond to my challenge. I retired when the kid next door kept trying to dunk the ball on his goal I was using and the basket, backboard and all fell on him and he never put it back up. Naturally I had to have a new basketball so I went to the local Wal-Mart to see what the marketplace offered. I don't understand the technology involved but, believe me, they have come up with some really nice synthetic basketballs. I couldn't help but reflect on how far the industry has come in my lifetime in developing synthetics for use instead of genuine leather. The most vivid memories I have of basketballs in my early years revolved around the shortage of same. The fellow who owned a basketball was always a popular fellow but the ball had to be able to absorb punishment unheard of today.

First of all, let me say that I rarely played indoors until I was in the 8th grade. We had a goal nailed to a tree in grammar school and we held practices regardless of the weather. Ever tried to catch a basketball when it was coated with mud. Dribbling on a muddy court was a lot of fun also. The bottom of your pants would be covered with mud after practice. Oh, another thing. We didn't have a coach except for the actual games which were held indoors on Saturday mornings at the old YMCA which was located in Raleigh on the corner across from the State Capitol. Practices were led by the captain of the team presumably based on "conferences" he had held with the coach. We all knew better. The captain was just doing the best he could to act like a coach and it was better than nothing. There weren't many alternatives in those days. How would you like to observe a team practice session today without a coach being present?

Going back to the scarcity of basketballs in my early days, I remember one incident from about the 5th grade that illustrates the point very well.

We were playing some kind of game with the basketball other than shooting at the goal. Seems like we would just throw the ball to one another and then everyone else would chase the individual with the ball. It was sort of like rugby that I have seen a few times on television.

The incident I referred to above occurred when one of the passes went over the fence and on to U.S. Highway #1. We all watched while the ball rolled across the street and prayed a little that the ball wouldn't be hit by an automobile or a truck. No such luck. The ball was run over by what we would call an 18 wheeler today and it made an exploding sound like a small cannon. I wish I had a photograph of the looks on all our faces after this happened because we knew we were in trouble. The school had only 1 basketball and now it was gone.

Sure enough, the female principal who was one tough cookie apparently decided it was pointless to try and determine if one of us was to blame for the accident so she informed all of us to bring a predetermined amount of money to school the following day to cover the expense of purchasing a new ball. So that's what we did. Can you imagine what the reaction would be today if little Cory came home and said he had to take an amount of money to school so the school could buy a new basketball. There probably would be a law suit over the matter. I saw the other day that a parent had sued the band director of a high school band because her son had not been chosen as the first trumpet. I guess that's better than the parent beating up the band director which occurs with some regularity at little league athletic contests.

At the Wal-Mart, I was introduced to a new kind of basketball ( for me at least ) but one with which I'm sure most youngsters are very familiar. It's called an "Infusion" ball and has a pump inside the ball. There is a rubberized screw that is flush with the surface of the ball that when rotated with a thumbnail causes a small pump to pop up above the surface of the ball. To increase the air pressure in the ball you just give the pump a couple of pushes and the air pressure in the ball is increased.

Have you ever given any thought as to what the air pressure in a standard basketball should be? Printed on the ball I purchased and several more I have examined, there are directions to inflate the ball to between 7 and 9 pounds. That seems like a lot of variance to me and could make a significant difference in the bounce of the ball. I wonder whose responsibility it is to check this before games. The home team is responsible for providing the ball and I assume they are responsible for inflating it. I have never seen the officials do anything with the ball at game time other than to bounce it a few times presumably to insure that it is properly inflated. Have you ever seen a situation where the ball failed the "bounce" test? I know I haven't.

One other point on basketballs before I close. I see where the NCAA has given in to the folks at PETA and will not longer allow the use of leather balls in competition. I have no problem with this because there is no way a leather ball could be superior to the synthetic one I have but it's baffling to me why this became an issue. Does anyone think animals were being killed just to make basketballs?" I assume the hides of animals killed for consumption were being used. Now the question is who has benefited by the change in the NCAA rule. Only 6 of the 64 teams in the playoffs last year used leather balls anyhow so the issue had already been dealt with to a large extent. Maybe it was done for PR purposes but I'll bet you a pretty dollar the change wouldn't have taken place if the alternative to leather balls was the rubber ball we used 50 years ago. Time Marches On.

Part 2

Several questions were raised during my previous article on this subject and I have conducted additional research that I would like to share with you. I must confess, the driving force behind my interest in this subject was the realization that all things involving basketball, and for that matter all sports, are assumed to be in order when, in fact, they may not be.

My first encounter with the rules and responsibilities of basketball officials came when I attempted to have a casual conversation with the clerk at Wal-Mart where I purchased my new basketball. It started out friendly enough but soon developed into an argument that I chose to discontinue. Where we disagreed was whose responsibility was it to insure that the basketball to be used in games met certain specified criteria. After we ended our conversation/argument I figured out why we wound up with divergent positions on this matter. He informed me that he had officiated basketball games and I, in a moment of weakness, commented sarcastically that he must have all the answers if he had experience as an official. Be careful when you deal with self-appointed "experts." Experience in a field of endeavor does not automatically make one an "expert."

His basic position was that the referee had no responsibility to determine if a game ball met prescribed standards. He said it was the responsibility of the home team. Using common sense and what little knowledge I had concerning the role of referees and officials in other sports, I took the position that the referee did or should have responsibilities in this area. So, we didn't come to any agreement but the question remained in my thoughts, and I decided I would seek a second opinion.

This morning I went out to the University of Richmond and talked with the individual in charge of all athletic equipment for that institution. I informed him at the outset what I was attempting to do and he was most obliging in answering the questions that I had.

It is true that the home team has the responsibility of supplying the ball to be used in home games. This can be either a leather or synthetic ball. The type of ball can be changed without notifying any one even though some coaches attempt to find out legitimately what type ball will be used when a game is played at an "away" location. This is done so practice sessions immediately prior to the game will be conducted with the same type ball.

It is true that the prescribed air pressure for a collegiate basketball is from 7-9 pounds. The equipment manager said that his experience has been that prior to the game, officials will drop the ball from eye level and it should bounce back up to waist level. He has never seen a basketball official test the ball for the amount of air pressure with a gauge but he says football is different. In football, the game ball is delivered to the officials prior to the game and the offensive team is allowed to use the ball of their choice provided it meets prescribed standards. He has seen football officials check the air pressure of game balls with an air pressure gauge before a game but he has never has seen a basketball official do this.

Back to basketball. The game ball is one of 12 that are used in warm ups. Balls are "broken in" by the home team to remove the smooth surface of a new ball. In jest, I asked if a team could use a rubber ball if they wanted to and he said yes, but he couldn't think of any reason why a team would want to do that since the home team would have to realize an advantage to be motivated to do this. He says the Wilson ball is now the official NCAA ball and that players feel it has the best feel of any ball on the market. I know what he means even though I am hard pressed to articulate exactly what it is that makes it feel so good to the hands.

So there you have it. You might wonder what has been gained by all this research and I would answer that it is obvious that considerable latitude is allowed in the use of game basketballs that I thought was being policed, but obviously is not. Some might not worry about this, others see opportunities for mischief. Maybe I have been around too long but I know of one ACC school that years ago adjusted the sandbags for the backboard support which were concealed, depending on what kind of team they played. The equipment manager did allow for the fact that a team with strong perimeter shooters could benefit from tight rims or an over inflated ball.

And to think that all of this began when I had my first free throw shooting session and had to struggle to hit 70% when I had previously been a consistent 90% shooter. I never made a single free throw when the ball hit the rim. I can't check the rim so I am not sure what the problem is. I don't like to think I have "lost it" but I guess that day comes for everybody in every type of endeavor. I'm not ready to accept it yet. Throw me the ball.

Almost forgot. As I was leaving I saw a row of football helmets lined along the top of some lockers. Each was from a different school and I can only assume they were from schools that the U. of Richmond has defeated. Yes, a Carolina helmet was there but so was Georgia's so we had good company. I had to sit through that one in old City Stadium in the 70's during Dick Crum's first year. Won't forget that anytime soon.