Dropping the ball
By Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports
December 6, 2006
Privately, NBA officials rolled their eyes and insisted that within weeks, the players' bemoaning over the new basketball would come and go.
"Just like the dress code did last year," one league official promised.
But now, only six weeks into the regular season, NBA commissioner David Stern finally understands that this was a terrible miscalculation. This time, the issue isn't about the style of the sport, but the sheerest of its substance. And the longer he was resisting the protests of his league's players, the more out of touch he sounded.
Anyone watching could see that this ball did too many funky things on the rim and floor, that it clearly altered the game. So Stern has changed course and made a surprising, if not startling, confession: I screwed this up.
"Everything is on the table," the commissioner told the New York Times. "I'm not pleased, but I'm realistic. We've got to do the right thing here. And, of course, the right thing is to listen to our players. Whether it's a day late or not, we're dealing with this."
Before the NBA pushes deeper into the season, Stern ought to forget the manufacturer's studies and go back to the leather ball now.
In the beginning, the players were told of the simple feel of the micro-fiber composite ball over the old leather. What they weren't told was the way the new ball grew slippery, the way it bounded oddly off the backboard and rim. Lately, the biggest stars in the sport, including Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, found that the ball's surface causes cuts on fingers. Two-time MVP Steve Nash has a handful of finger tips wrapped in bandages.
Whatever the NBA and Spalding's studies told them, the reality spoke of something else. This ball was a blight on the game. It needs to go.
"By virtue of the statements made, he's acknowledging a mistake was made and let's just go about this in a different way," Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said from his office on Wednesday morning. "But give the commissioner credit for being responsive in this way."
As much of a mistake it has been to ramrod the new ball into use without real feedback from NBA players – and sorry, summer leagues don't count – the way Stern dismissed the complaints was worse. Truth be told, there was a real arrogance in rejecting the players' issues as a nuisance. Here was the most essential tool they use in the game, an orb that connects them in every way, and until now, Stern's stance bordered on disrespectful.
Of course, there are instances that the commissioner has to rule unilaterally for the good of the sport. In the end, no league can function as a democracy. Still, this was an instance where a stand-down never needed to happen, where the players association never should've never had to file a grievance with the National Labor Relations board.
"I don't know if it's ever been a partnership," NBA Players Association president Derek Fisher told Yahoo! Sports last week. "I know we have attempted to make it that way (but) very rarely has it felt like a partnership. For us, it feels like we've had to generally react, or defend, or stand up for things that we believe in.
"We've very rarely been sought out for advice before things have been decided."
As word spread of Stern's reassessment on Wednesday, there was considerable relief that the dictatorial edict on these balls had softened, that suddenly the issue of returning to the leather balls loomed as a possibility. Before Stern's change of heart had gone public, Dallas Mavericks guard Devin Harris spoke theoretically in the visiting locker room in East Rutherford, N.J., wondering about the pros and cons of changing back in midstream of the season.
"It might almost be a step back going to the old ball, to start over again," Harris said. "It took some time getting used to this new ball. We'll see what the majority of the players want, but I could go either way.
"When it gets wet, it's still a tough thing. But after you play with it so many games, you learn how to play with its deficiencies. You get used to the ball."
Somehow, the NBA should have a higher standard than asking its players to grow used to working with the "deficiencies" of its basketball. The longer the league waits to bring back the leather balls, the harder it'll be to make the transition back.
David Stern has come halfway now, but he needs to go the distance. He tried the new ball. It didn't work. These things happen. If the game matters most here, if that's what this is about, the leather balls come back out of the closets now.
Adrian Wojnarowski is the national NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports.