I would have found it reassuringly quaint, and downright old school, that, as Mark Viera reported in the New York Times last week, in the NCAA each home team gets to choose which brand of basketball to play with. That is, if I didn’t know it was just a matter of the various cozy marketing deals being struck with each team by manufacturers. Aside from dictating the shape – “the ball shall be spherical” – and the general texture – a“deeply pebbled leather or composite cover” – and the assembly – with “the traditionally shaped eight panels,” NCAA basketball is the Wild West when it comes to the balls themselves.
As the article notes, the NBA, NFL, and MLB all have “official” balls, which means every time a player takes to the court or the field he’s handling the same familiar form. And in college football, each offense selects their ball of preference. But in college basketball there are no fewer than seven brands of balls bouncing around home courts – each spherical, yeah, but each with its quirks of texture and feel. Enough to throw off a player’s free throw pretty easily.
But these guys have it easy compared to the way it used to be. Back when Naismith invented the game it was played with a soccer ball. Even after “basket balls” were introduced, they were lumpy orbs with laces that had to be untied several times a game to be pumped up. As I relay in The Ball, in 1919 Syracuse All-American Joe Schwarzer bragged about the challenges of play in those early days, “When you shot the ball, you could see it going up by leaps and bounds depending on how the air would hit the laces.”
Marketing deals or no, I love the fact that the ball can still be a somewhat unpredictable and deciding force on the court in an age of over-regulation and predictability.