Funny feel of NBA ball vindicates players

December 17, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

The instinctive, from-the-gut reaction: The ball feels funny.

Not funny ha-ha, funny strange. The reaction to the NBA's new ball - by the usual army of public cynics who test their cheap one-liners on NBA players every chance they get - now that was funny ha-ha.

The ball itself, though, feels ... odd. Off. Definitely wrong. Not something the best in the business should be using.

It feels funny. It bounces funny. The seams are funny. Shaquille O'Neal was right: It was too much like one of those "cheap balls that you buy at the toy store, indoor-outdoor balls."

In its defense, though, it didn't leave cuts or scrapes on my hands. I only dribbled it for about a minute, though.

And oh no, I didn't shoot it. I was courtside at Verizon Center last week, before the Wizards-Nuggets game, finally trying out the state-of-the-art, composite, microfiber ball - and the crowd was filing in. Not going to play myself like that, no sir.

Still, my belief was that before passing judgment in the case of NBA, Spalding, PETA, Smart-aleck Commentators et al vs. Players, I needed to inspect the evidence up close. I hadn't even seen the impostor in person, so for all I knew it really was a far superior product, and less of a drastic departure from the classic leather than the players were letting on.

In short, the players might really have been the spoiled, whiny, self-important divas so many outsiders were portraying them to be.

Of course, as of last week, the verdict already is in: The NBA backed down, tossed the cheesy imitator out of play and on New Year's Day will bring back the ball that once was good enough for Chamberlain, Russell, Magic and Michael. Oops.

Before David Stern came to his senses, the players seemed to have all the arguments in their favor. Now - not that they needed my validation - they really do.

What a mistake. What a huge goof by the historically sure-handed, lately imperialistic commissioner. And I honestly feel better writing that, now that I've had my hands on the stupid thing. (The ball, not Stern, who actually is way too smart for a misstep like this).

Now, it's very important to note that the bottom line in this whole unsavory situation is not so much the ball itself, but the manner in which it was shoved down the players' throats. Hard to imagine any industry in which the workers wouldn't rightfully raise a stink about that.

You'd have to figure that if the pen-and-mike crowd that was so disparaging of the players' complaints was told that tomorrow it had to start using Jimmy Olsen-era typewriters and carbon paper instead of laptops with internal wireless modems, most would throw a natural hissy fit.

But we're not a bunch of dumb, overpaid jocks, so do as we say, not as we do.

It's not even worth the ink it would take to explain why it was wrong to introduce a significant change in the most basic element of the game without consulting the players. It's not even so wrong to change the ball, although there didn't seem to be a real need for a new one, the way there was a need for a special "K" ball in the NFL so kickers didn't have to use a wet one.

Just run it past the players first. Make a production out of it; the NBA is good at that. Announcing the switch with fanfare and with everyone's blessing could have gone over big.

It is weird to realize that not only did Stern not bother to do anything like that, but that he also got so much public support for not doing it. It's weirder still that by reversing his field less than two months into the season, he has managed to come off sounding right both times.

Where could it have gone next? Here, play in these 8-inch spike heels. Trust me, the lab guys say they're better than those Nikes you're wearing. Don't worry, you'll get used to them.

That was the funniest reason given for the players to shut up and play: They're professionals, they'll get used to it. They probably could get used to playing with a beach ball if ordered to, or playing on 12-foot rims, or playing on a court made of rice pudding, but that doesn't mean it's right or fair or logical to do so.

Second-funniest reason, by the way, is that the overall shooting and turnover numbers are better. Not that they haven't been improving the past several years - nope, can't be the players or coaching or rule changes. It has to be the ball that so much marketing punch and credibility was riding on.

Of course, now that many have gradually gotten used to it, they have to change back again in a couple of weeks. A lot of them aren't happy about it and want to wait until next season. I'm not with them on that, though - they should have started playing with the old balls the night Stern changed his mind. Roll out a rack then and there.

Then again, if they'd done that, I would have missed my chance to feel what the controversy was about.

david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele -- Points After

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