In the summer of 2006, the NBA arbitrarily introduced a new synthetic basketball that league commissioner David Stern said was "the best in the world." It was not.
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
In June of 2006, the NBA announced that it was making a change. It was, a triumphal league press release crowed, "the first change to the ball in over 35 years and only the second in 60 seasons," in this case from an eight-panel leather ball to ... something more complicated. Spalding's new ball was made of proprietary Cross Traxxion™ microfiber material, and had an interlocking cross-panel design that is hard to describe; lock your hands together, fingers interlaced, then imagine a NBA logo on the knuckle of your left middle finger and David Stern's signature on the right, and you're sort of there.
One summer morning not long after that announcement, I drove up to the New York Knicks practice facility in White Plains, New York. As part of my job at Topps, I was to interview the players picked in that year's NBA draft, for quotes that would wind up on the back of their first trading cards. The rookies were in their uniforms; to spare anyone the embarrassment of mistaking me for Tyrus Thomas, I was issued a be-logoed polo shirt that would have fit comfortably over a refrigerator. The players floated from station to station, getting their pictures taken or goofing off or answering me when I asked what Jim Calhoun or the Summer League or growing up in Baltimore had taught them. Around noon, everyone involved—the teenage colossuses in their uniforms and the khaki masses there to commodify them—went outside to a big white tent and ate burgers.
I took probably a hundred jump shots that day; I rebounded for Quincy Douby and threw an alley-oop to Renaldo Balkman at a photographer's request. The only reason I know that I did those things with a Spalding Cross Traxxion™ basketball is because Steve Novak at one point remarked on it. He liked the ball, he said, turning one over in his long-fingered hands. He thought that it gave you a really good grip. Maybe he was the only shooter whose shooter-senses were finely attuned enough to notice any of that; maybe he was the only one earnest enough to think it worth mentioning.
The only reason I remember that he did is because, after just two months of games and in response to a cascade of overwhelming and unrelenting criticism from the league's players, the NBA announced in mid-December that it would make its third change to the game ball in 60 seasons and its second in six months. Starting on the first day of 2007, the league would be going back to the old eight-panel leather ball. Novak might have been the only NBA player ever to say anything good about the league's old new ball.
"Spalding's continual efforts to advance basketball technology have yielded the optimal ball," Spalding CEO Scott Creelman said when the Cross Traxxion™ game ball was unveiled.
David Stern, then the NBA's commissioner, echoed Creelman's bloodless, copy-written sentiment: "The advancements that Spalding has made to the new game ball ensure that the best basketball players in the world will be playing with the best basketball in the world."
The best basketball players in the world had other ideas. "Terrible," Shaquille O'Neal, then of the Miami Heat, said three weeks before the season began. "It feels like one of those cheap balls you buy at the toy store.... I look for shooting percentages to be way down and turnovers to be way up, because when the ball gets wet you can't really control it. Whoever did that needs to be fired. It was terrible, a terrible decision. Awful."
Others were less diplomatic. "I hate it," said Washington Wizards guard and NBA thought leader DeShawn Stevenson. While teammate Caron Butler managed a meager non-defense, stating, "I don't know what the big deal is," nearly every one of the NBA's prominent players voiced some sort of complaint.
"The ball just tears [my fingers] apart," defending MVP Steve Nash said.
"I have to constantly put lotion all over my hands because my fingers are cracking and it's causing splits on my fingertips," said Ray Allen, who had set the NBA's single-season record for three-pointers a year earlier.
Raja Bell showed reporters a gnarly split fingernail that he attributed to the new ball. Nash and Jason Terry showed reporters what looked like paper cuts on their fingers. Dirk Nowitzki said it made his hands bleed. A distraught Eddy Curry claimed that the ball never left his hand the same way; it stuck to his middle finger, he said. Michael Doleac didn't like it. The optimal basketball was not optimal. The consensus was that it was, actually, quite bad.
The more the story of the new ball emerged, the stranger it looked. The new ball had been used during the two previous NBA All-Star Weekends and in the D-League in 2004-05; Spalding also had retired players Mark Jackson, Steve Kerr, and Reggie Miller test it. But actual NBA players were never actually consulted on the change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, resistance to Cross Traxxion™ technology seemed driven as much by the arbitrary way the ball had been introduced as by the ball itself.
Players adjusted on the court, however reluctantly; in defiance of The Big Aristotle's prognostications, shooting percentages rose and league scoring went up by 2.5 points per game on average during the brief period the ball was in use. However, the NBA's labor force had a more difficult time understanding how and why they hadn't been asked, or even really been warned, that they would be playing with a new basketball. Imagine Major League Baseball informing its players, without consultation, that all gloves will now be made out of the material used to upholster office chairs. "It's not like the game has lost anything, that the scoring is down or we're not getting exciting finishes," Jerry Stackhouse told the New York Times. "But it's one of those things where it is directly affecting our workplace. Unilateral, that's the word."
On December 1, the NBA Players Association filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. In his statement on the complaint, Ralph Nader (yes, the situation was sufficiently egregious that Ralph Nader issued a statement) said, "Mr. Stern, having never consulted the players about changing to a new ball, nor even allowing them to test it before implementation, you have shown the players a great deal of disrespect."
This was a somewhat autocratic period for the NBA, and one that feels significantly longer ago than a decade and change. Stern, who had sprung his new business casual dress code on the league shortly before the start of the previous season, was wheeling toward the zenith of his late-career Komissar phase, and the change in game ball carried the same beefy whiff of executive fiat as the new blazer mandate. But while players adapted to the dress code quickly—it's one of the nice residual ironies of the Stern administration that he inadvertently did so much to push the league toward the hyperactive avant-gardism of Russell Westbrook's fashion revolution—messing with the basketball was over the line. "The only thing that we love the most is the basketball," LeBron James said at the time. "That's your comfort. I mean, without your basketball, it doesn't work. That was my biggest problem, was, why would you change something that means so much to us?"
To the limited extent that the Stern and the league ever deigned to answer that question, they emphasized efficiency: the microfiber balls were pitched as a solution to what Spalding described as a shortage of "reliable leather" and the time-consuming breaking-in process involved in conditioning leather game balls. But it's difficult to overstate just how limited the explaining was, and not just where the players were concerned. Asked about the internal league process involved in implementing the balls, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told VICE Sports, "I have no idea. We were told it would happen, not asked what we thought about it."
For as long as he could, Stern emphasized that the new balls were just better. "I think that some of the dramatics around it were a little overstated in terms of the downside and not enough recognition of the upside," Stern told reporters on the NBA's preseason tour of Europe. "Within certain parameters of the way you want a ball to perform again and again and again, it is performing extraordinarily well.... It doesn't mean it feels the same; it may not even bounce exactly the same. It may do all the things that everyone says it may or may not do, but it's a very good ball and the tests continue to demonstrate that it's an improvement."
What were the NBA's parameters? Who conducted the tests? What did Stern mean by "extraordinarily well"? These were state secrets. Shortly before the start of the season, and well into the pushback from the players and the union, Cuban commissioned physicists from the University of Texas-Arlington to test just how the new balls differed from the old. The results largely corroborated the player complaints—that Cross Traxxion™ both retained frictive dirt and became notably slippery when exposed to the slightest amount of moisture, and bounced differently enough that you'd notice in terms of both degree and kind. The physicists found that the new ball bounced five to eight percent less than the old one, and was an astonishing 30 percent more erratic in how it bounced.
This is not to say that Steve Novak was off-base about the ball back at the NBA rookie shoot; by the time the league announced that it would phase out the new balls, on December 11, players like Nash complained that they had already begun to adjust to the Cross Traxxion™'s eccentricities and would rather the league stay with it. The ball was undoubtedly an unforced blunder by the league and retrospectively a mid-level disaster for Spalding—after the change-back, Spalding announced that it would offer $100 refunds, plus $15 of consideration for taxes and shipping, to people who wanted to exchange the Cross Traxxion™ balls they'd purchased. In his attempt to assess the damage to Spalding, Robert Tuchman, of the sports consultancy TSE Sports & Entertainment, told Sports Business Daily, "I wouldn't put it on the same page as the New Coke fiasco, but it really is an unfortunate situation."
Still, it was by no means a situation that could not have been fixed with some combination of anticipatory collaboration and flexibility after the fact; Cuban, for instance, made the eminently reasonable suggestion that teams could simply swap out balls at regular intervals throughout the game, or whenever they got wet. But any attempt to remedy the problem that the ball presented would first have required that the league acknowledge a problem existed, and that was always the bigger challenge. "I can't imagine David Stern ever admitting that he made a mistake," ESPN's Tim Legler said in early November. "Or the league for that matter."
When the move finally came, in mid-December, it was accompanied by an example of just how close Stern could come to such an admission. "I won't make a spirited defense with respect to the ball," Stern told the New York Times. "In hindsight, we could have done a better job. I take responsibility for that. If our players are unhappy with it, we have to analyze to the nth degree the cause of their unhappiness. Everything is on the table. 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." If anyone was offended by Cross Traxxion™, that would be regrettable, basically.
It would be nice to end there, but if the conflagration surrounding the doomed new basketball taught Stern a valuable lesson about the risks of unilateralism and executive overreach, it wasn't in a way that prevented the commissioner from going on to oversee an acrimonious lockout in 2011, nor from delivering his legendary Basketball Reasons chasedown block of the trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers later that year.
In the moment, though, and also in retrospect, the short and tragicomic life of the NBA's new basketball was a win for collective labor action against executive high-handedness. "He understands where we were coming from," LeBron James told USA Today the day after Stern announced the return of the old ball. "For the league to be successful, the players have to be happy." In a league whose players represent both the labor and the product, this ought to be obvious. The bloody fingertips of history suggest it's not quite so easy to grasp.
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