First played using a soccer ball, basketball has only seen its official ball in 1894, three years since the game’s invention. Along with the sport, the basketball ball itself has been modified through the years, seeing changes for the betterment of the gameplay.
Today, visiting a sports shop entails coming across different basketball brands, sizes, and colors, intended for different levels of the game and age groups, far from what they were manufactured initially. Here, let’s discover how making basketballs has changed over time, bringing us to the ones we use for the fun and thrilling sport we love today.
Evolution of the Basketball Ball
Basketball originally used a soccer ball for playing the game, as there was no proper ball available yet when James Naismith invented the game in 1891. However, the soccer ball was eventually deemed unfit for the handling and dribbling requirements of the sports, leading Naismith to think of designs that were suitable for the game.
With that, Naismith asked American sports equipment manufacturing company, A.G. Spalding and Bros, to devise the very first basketball. The company was renowned for manufacturing and designing sports items and did a good job in creating the ball in 1984.
Spalding’s ball had an 81-centimeter circumference. It was made with a rubber bladder, surrounded by stitch leather panels, looking like today’s rugby ball.
As the balls were hand-stitched, the manual process led to varying sizes of the ball, which in turn, resulted in further investment in research for the game’s standard-size ball. Despite such, the official sport’s rules soon reflected that the official ball must be the one made by A.G. Spalding & Bros.
It was only in 1937 when the hand-stitched laces were removed due to their inconsistency. Basketball coach and player Chuck Taylor invented the first laceless basketball, which was easier to control, had more bounce, and was way better than the very first version of the basketball. Pretty much the other aspects were not altered, such as the usage of real leather for the ball’s covering.
In 1942, one of the important breakthroughs in basketball design took place, with the invention of the first molded version of the basketball. These balls were made in factories and maintained constant shape and size. As such, it was the first time in basketball’s history that all balls were manufactured with the standard circumference of 76 centimeters. Having a regulation ball allowed players to hone their skills, as they no longer had to deal with the ball’s inconsistency in shape, size, and bouncing.
The late 1950s
Basketball balls were colored dark brown due to their leather construction. The catch is it was very difficult to see, both for the players and the viewers, especially with the fast-paced movements and gameplay. Thankfully, renowned coach Tony Hinkle from Butler University initiated the use of the orange ball, which was easier to see even in dim light and even from afar in the stadium. Impressed with the results, clubs around the globe rapidly followed and it is now the stereotypical color of basketball today.
1967 to 1976
The American Basketball Association (ABA), a major men’s professional basketball league that featured teams like San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and the New York Nets (Brooklyn Nets), used the red-white-blue ball instead of the orange ball. It is still used in some games from time to time.
In 1970, the National Basketball Association (NBA) changed the regulatory design to eight leather panels from the original four leather panels to improve the grip on the ball. Two years later, Spalding was able to manufacture the first basketball with synthetic leather covering, an innovation that vastly reduced manufacturing costs and increased production.
The late 1990s
Leather was the main material used for basketball for nearly a century after its invention. Yet, Spalding made another breakthrough in the late 1990s with their creation of the basketball with synthetic composite materials. The new technology came with perks like increased durability, improved control, and even better grip of the ball. These new balls were readily accepted by different leagues around the world instead of the leather ball.
In 2001, Spalding introduced the basketball with a built-in pump. Prior to its integration, replacement balls must be purchased once the balls have deflated. With the built-in pump, balls simply had to be inflated to be reused. Thus, extending the lifespan and usage of the ball.
In 2006, Spalding released a new design for the NBA’s regulation ball. Features of the updated design included synthetic microfiber composite covering material that enhanced the ball’s consistency, and two interlocking panels instead of the standard eight. Along with this were the moisture management properties, which promoted a better grip on the ball throughout the game.
Also in the same year, Spalding introduced another technology that provided the ball with superior pressure retention properties. It ensured the full inflation of the basketball for a full year, a major improvement that eliminated the need for constant inflation of the basketball.
Yet, the new synthetic wasn’t received positively, with the players complaining that the ball had a different feel and that it performed differently. Not even three months after it was used, the leather ball returned to the league.
Over the Years
Further changes were made in the basketball’s design over the years, all for the improvement of the sport. One such important feature includes the introduction of dimples from the golf ball. Called “Hole-in-One,” the technology allowed players to palm and grip the ball easily. Another advancement was the use of sweat-absorbing polyurethane which included moisture-wicking holes for better handling of the ball.
In 2021, the NBA switched back to the Wilson ball after four decades of using the Spalding ball. Wilson was the NBA’s original partner, which manufactured the ball for the league from 1946 until 1983. Balls are made of the same leather materials and have the same performance specifications and eight-panel configurations.
Like the history of the sport of basketball, its ball has gone through innovative benchmarks, further improving how the game is played. From the soccer ball to the first basketball in 1894, many alterations were made while several features were also added taking the players and the spectators into account. As technology continues to evolve, we don’t know what changes are coming ahead, but we can count on that all are meant to enhance the sport we all love.
If you want to get some tips on how to pick the best basketballs for practice or for games, read our Guide to Selecting the Right Basketball.