Basketball can make a true claim to being the only major sport that is an American invention. From high school to the professional level, basketball attracts a large following for live games as well as television coverage of events like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) annual tournament and the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) playoffs. And it has also made American heroes out of its player and coach legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Sheryl Swoopes, and other great players.
At the heart of the game is the playing space and the equipment. The space is a rectangular, indoor court. The principal pieces of equipment are the two elevated baskets, one at each end (in the long direction) of the court, and the basketball itself. The ball is spherical in shape and is inflated. Basket-balls range in size from 28.5-30 in (72-76 cm) in circumference, and in weight from 18-22 oz (510-624 g). For players below the high school level, a smaller ball is used, but the ball in men's games measures 29.5-30 in (75-76 cm) in circumference, and a women's ball is 28.5-29 in (72-74 cm) in circumference. The covering of the ball is leather, rubber, composition, or synthetic, although leather covers only are dictated by rules for college play, unless the teams agree otherwise. Orange is the regulation color. At all levels of play, the home team provides the ball.
Inflation of the ball is based on the height of the ball's bounce. Inside the covering or casing, a rubber bladder holds air. The ball must be inflated to a pressure sufficient to make it rebound to a height (measured to the top of the ball) of 49-54 in (1.2-1.4 m) when it is dropped on a solid wooden floor from a starting height of 6 ft (1.80 m) measured from the bottom of the ball. The factory must test the balls, and the air pressure that makes the ball legal in keeping with the bounce test is stamped on the ball. During the intensity of high school and college tourneys and the professional playoffs, this inflated sphere commands considerable attention.
Basketball is one of few sports with a known date of birth. On December 1, 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts, James Naismith hung two half-bushel peach baskets at the opposite ends of a gymnasium and out-lined 13 rules based on five principles to his students at the International Training School of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), which later became Springfield College. Naismith (1861-1939) was a physical education teacher who was seeking a team sport with limited physical contact but a lot of running, jumping, shooting, and the hand-eye coordination required in handling a ball. The peach baskets he hung as goals gave the sport the name of basketball. His students were excited about the game, and Christmas vacation gave them the chance to tell their friends and people at their local YMCAs about the game. The association leaders wrote to Naismith asking for copies of the rules, and they were published in the Triangle, the school newspaper, on January 15,1892.
Naismith's five basic principles center on the ball, which was described as "large, light, and handled with the hands." Players
Early in the history of basketball, the local YMCAs provided the gymnasiums, and membership in the organization grew rapidly. The size of the local gym dictated the number of players; smaller gyms used five players on a side, and the larger gyms allowed seven to nine. The team size became generally established as five in 1895, and, in 1897, this was made formal in the rules. The YMCA lost interest in supporting the game because 10-20 basketball players monopolized a gymnasium previously used by many more in a variety of activities. YMCA membership dropped, and basketball enthusiasts played in local halls. This led to the building of basketball gymnasiums at schools and colleges and also to the formation of professional leagues.
Although basketball was born in the United States, five of Naismith's original players were Canadians, and the game spread to Canada immediately. It was played in France by 1893; England in 1894; Australia, China, and India between 1895 and 1900; and Japan in 1900.
From 1891 through 1893, a soccer ball was used to play basketball. The first basketball was manufactured in 1894. It was 32 in (81 cm) in circumference, or about 4 in (10 cm) larger than a soccer ball. The dedicated basketball was made of laced leather and weighed less than 20 oz (567 g). The first molded ball that eliminated the need for laces was introduced in 1948; its construction and size of 30 in (76 cm) were ruled official in 1949.
The rule-setters came from several groups early in the 1900s. Colleges and universities established their rules committees in 1905, the YMCA and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) created a set of rules jointly, state militia groups abided by a shared set of rules, and there were two professional sets of rules. A Joint Rules Committee for colleges, the AAU, and the YMCA was created in 1915, and, under the name the National Basketball Committee (NBC) made rules for amateur play until 1979. In that year, the National Federation of State High School Associations began governing the sport at the high school level, and the NCAA Rules Committee assumed rule-making responsibilities for junior colleges, colleges, and the Armed Forces, with a similar committee holding jurisdiction over women's basketball.
Until World War II, basketball became increasingly popular in the United States especially at the high school and college levels. After World War II, its popularity grew around the world. In the 1980s, interest in the game truly exploded because of television exposure. Broadcast of the NCAA Championship Games began in 1963, and, by the 1980s, cable television was carrying regular season college games and even high school championships in some states. Players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) became nationally famous at the college level and carried their fans along in their professional basketball careers. The women's game changed radically in 1971 when separate rules for women were modified to more closely resemble the men's game. Television interest followed the women as well with broadcast of NCAA championship tourneys beginning in the early 1980s and the formation of the WNBA in 1997.
Internationally, Italy has probably become the leading basketball nation outside of the United States, with national, corporate, and professional teams. The Olympics boosts basketball internationally and has also spurred the women's game by recognizing it
The first professional men's basketball league in the United States was the National Basketball League (NBL), which debuted in 1898. Players were paid on a per-game basis, and this league and others were hurt by the poor quality of games and the ever-changing players on a team. After the Great Depression, a new NBL was organized in 1937, and the Basketball Association of America was organized in 1946. The two leagues came to agree that players had to be assigned to teams on a contract basis and that high standards had to govern the game; under these premises, the two joined to form the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949. A rival American Basketball Association (ABA) was inaugurated in 1967 and challenged the NBA for college talent and market share for almost ten years. In 1976, this league disbanded, but four of its teams remained as NBA teams. Unification came just in time for major television support. Several women's professional leagues were attempted and failed, including the Women's Professional Basketball League (WBL) and the Women's World Basketball Association, before the WNBA debuted in 1997 with the support of the NBA.
The outside covering of a basketball is made of synthetic rubber, rubber, composition, or leather. The inside consists of a bladder (the balloon-like structure that holds air) and the carcass. The bladder is made of butyl rubber, and the carcass consists of treads of nylon or polyester. Preprinted decals are used to label the ball, or foil is used to imprint label information. Zinc and copper plates are used in a press to either affix the decals or imprint the foil.
The actual configuration of most basket-balls is dictated by the rules or standards of the type of game in which the ball will be used. NBA, WNBA, and other professional leagues have specified dimensions for regulation balls, as described above, and even the imprinted information is specified. Amateur sports bodies have also developed rules and specifications, and there are specialized basketballs made for junior players (younger than high-school age), intermediate players (high-school age), and for indoor, outdoor, or combination play. Promotional basketballs that are much smaller in diameter are also made as souvenirs of many events such as the NCAA Championships.
Basketball designers are always trying to improve the product and build a better basketball. Inventor Marvin Palmquist created the "Hole-in-One" basketball to improve a player's grip; the ball has dimples, much like a golf ball, and can be easily palmed Michael Jordan-style by players with smaller-than-Jordan hands. Even the most skilled NBA star copes with sweaty palms, and this obstacle is addressed in another modification consisting of microscopic holes in the surface, which is made of absorbent polyurethane. This is the same material that forms the grip on a tennis racket, but it has been strengthened to withstand the abrasion of bouncing on a wooden basketball court. It absorbs moisture to keep the ball's hide less slippery.
Michael Jordan was born February 17, 1963. Accepting a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina, he became the second Tarheel freshman to start every game. Jordan was named Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Rookie of the Year and won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship in 1982. He led the ACC in scoring and was named college player of the year in 1983 and 1984. Jordan left North Carolina after his junior year and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls as the third overall pick of the 1984 draft.
A broken foot sidelined Jordan for 64 games during the 1985-1986 season. He returned, scoring 49 points against the Boston Celtics in the first game of the playoffs and 63 in the second—an NBA record. During the 1986-1987 season Jordan became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to score 3,000 points in a season. The Bulls won the 1991-1993 NBA titles. In 1994 Jordan joined the Chicago White Sox minor league baseball team, returning to the Bulls for the remaining 1994-1995 season. In the 1995-1996 season, the team finished 72-10, another NBA record. The Bulls went on to win their fourth NBA title in 1996, fifth in 1997, and sixth in 1998 where Jordan claimed his sixth NBA finals MVP award,
Jordan participated in the 1984 and 1982 Summer Olympics, earning gold medals for the United States. He was named 1985s Rookie of the Year, 1988s Defensive Player of the Year, NBA MVP five times, has a career record for the highest scoring average of 28.5 ppg, played in 11 All-Star games (starting in 10, missing one due to injury), and named All-Star MVP three times. Jordan retired January 13, 1999.
Still other inventors feel the size of the ball is a disadvantage to proper handling and have suggested increasing the circumference from 30 to 36 in (76 to 91.4 cm), resulting in an increase in diameter from 9.6 to 11.5 in (24.4 to 29.2 cm). The so-called Bigball still fits through a regulation hoop and has been used in training sessions by both college and NBA teams. The Bigball must be shot with a higher arc to fall through the hoop, and, after practicing with the larger basketball, the regulation ball seems easier to handle.
The Manufacturing Process
Forming the bladder
- 1 The making of a basketball begins with the interior bladder. Black butyl rubber in bulk form (and including recycled rubber) is melted in the hopper of a press that feeds it out in a continuous sheet that is 12 in (30.5 cm) wide and 0.5 in (1.3 cm) thick. A guillotine-like cutter cuts the long strip into sheets that are 18 in (45.7 cm) long, and they are stacked up. A hand-controlled machine selects the sheets one at a time and, using a punch press, punches a 1-in-diameter (2.54-cm-diameter) hole that will hold the air tube for inflating the bladder.
- 2 The sheets are carried on a sheet elevator or conveyor to an assembly line where the air tube is inserted by hand. A heated melding device bonds it to the sheet, which is folded into quarters. Another punch press stamps out a rounded edge and, at the same time, binds the edges to make the seams of the bladder. This bladder is not perfectly shaped.
- 3 The odd-shaped bladder is taken to a vulcanizing machine. Vulcanization is a process for heating rubber under pressure that improves its properties by making it more flexible, more durable, and stronger. In the vulcanizer, the bladder is inflated. Heating by vulcanization uniformly seals the rubber so it will hold air. Completed bladders are stored in a holding chamber for 24 hours. This quality control measure tests their ability to hold air; those that deflate are recycled.
Shaping the carcass
- 4 The bladders that withstand the 24-hour inflation test are conveyed from the holding chamber to the twining or winding department. They make this joumey suspended from a conveyor system by their air tubes. Machines loaded with spools of either polyester or nylon thread or string wrap multiple strands at a time around each bladder; this is the same process used to make the inside of a golf ball. The irregularly shaped bladders now begin to take on a better, more rounded shape as the precisely controlled threads build and shape the balls. The quality of the thread and the number of strands determine the cost and quality of the ball. The typical street-quality basketball has a carcass made of multiple wraps of three strands of polyester thread. The balls used by professional teams have carcasses constructed of nylon thread that is wrapped using four strands of thread. The same over-head conveyors continue carrying the carcass-encased bladders by their air tubes to the next step in the process where the carcasses and covers will meet.
Crafting the covers of the balls
- 5 Meanwhile, the exteriors or covers of the balls have been in production as the bladders and carcasses have taken shape. On 60-inch-long (152-cm-long) tables, colored rubber is unrolled from a continuous roll. The smooth rubber does not have pebbling (small bumps) that characterizes the surface of a finished basketball so that the outlines for the panels can be clearly marked on the rubber. A silk screen is moved along a series of metal markers that are guides marking the length of the rubber sheet needed for each ball. The silk screen operator moves the screen by hand and imprints the outlines of the six panels making up the ball. Only one color is used at a time, and, depending on the design, multiple silk screenings may be needed to color the six panels with all the colors on the ball.
- 6 A hand-operated punch press—equipped with specially designed and tooled dies—punches the rubber outlines to create six separate panels per ball. The same die has a hole that is punched in one of the six panels to make an opening for the air tube. The excess rubber surrounding the panels is lifted off the line and deposited in a bin for recycling.
- 7 The assembly worker picks up the six panels for a single ball in a specific order and carries them to the vulcanizer. The interior of the vulcanizer for this process is different from the one for the bladders. It is form-fitted to hold the six panels, to create the channels between the panels, and to add any embossed information. The assembler fits the panels individually into specified sections in the vulcanizer. A bladder/carcass is taken off the overhead conveyor, covered with a coating of glue, and placed inside the chamber of the vulcanizer that is lined with the cover panels. When the ball emerges from the vulcanizer, most of its surface is still smooth (there are no bumps, called pebbling), but the channels and any embossing are formed into the surface.
- 8 Decals and foil decoration and information (if any) are applied by hand with small heat presses after the smooth ball is retrieved from the vulcanizer. Each ball is carefully inspected for gaps between the panels. These can occur, but each gap is filled during this inspection with a small piece of rubber that is hand-cut to fit the gap. The ball then is fitted into another vulcanizer that unifies the finished surface, blending in any gap fillers, and is specially molded to form the surface pebbling. The vulcanized balls are stored again for 24 hours in a second test to make sure they hold air.
Synthetic laminated covers and leather covers
- 9 The covers for basketballs that are made of synthetic laminated rubber or leather are also made in panels that are die-cut like the rubber panels. The synthetic laminated panels are shaved or trimmed along the edges, fitted and glued together by hand, and laminated to the carcass to create channels. They are also embossed by a heating process and decals are added. Any glue traces around the edges are removed, and any imperfect panels are replaced in the final inspection of synthetic laminated covers. Leather covers are made of full-grain, genuine leather and are stitched with heavy-duty machines; instead of indented, formed channels, the stitching forms the channels in leather balls. They are printed by silk screening and foil stamping, and their inspection includes a review of the uniformity and color of the leather.
Final testing, inspecting, and packing
- 10 Balls that pass the second 24-hour air pressure test are "bounce tested" to meet the regulation for inflation pressure that results in each ball bouncing a prescribed height. Balls that pass the bounce test are numbered to show the production run, and the decals and other artwork are inspected and touched up by hand as needed. Each completed ball is inspected again. The inspector removes the production run tag, and the ball is deflated so it can be easily packed and shipped. Each flattened ball is packed in a polyethylene bag, and the bagged balls are boxed for bulk shipment to the distributor. The distributor also inspects the balls when they are received and is responsible for reinflating them to the correct pressure and packaging them in display boxes for sale. The display boxes may also be packed in bulk for distribution to retailers.
No byproducts result from the manufacture of basketballs, but most makers have a variety of lines and may also make balls for other sports. Waste is limited. Dies for cutting panels of rubber, synthetic laminate, and leather are carefully designed to space the panels closely and limit the material used. This is especially critical for leather because of the cost; some leather waste is inevitable, though, because leather is a natural material and has irregularities in color, thickness, and surface. All rubber materials can be recycled, and they represent the bulk of material used in making a basketball.
Throughout the manufacturing process, inspections occur regularly to make sure the finished basketball will hold air and to correct any surface variations. Machines like punch presses, dies, vulcanizers, and printing tools are carefully designed initially to maximize use of materials and to create perfect pieces. The assembly process includes many steps that are performed by hand, and the assemblers are trained to watch for imperfections and reject unsuitable products. Inspections and tests also include weight-control testing of the completed carcasses and the panels, regardless of material. Whenever the completed products are stored for any length of time, they are randomly inspected for appearance, size, inflation, and any wobble.
Some distributors have special tests for products bearing their name. For example, Rawlings Sporting Goods Company tests the basketballs they produce for the NCAA Tournament with a unique "Slam Machine" that simulates the workout a ball will get in four games in just five minutes. The machine works by propelling the ball down a chute between two wooden wheels that launch it at about 30 mph (48 kph) toward a backboard that is angled to direct the ball back to the chute. Rawlings also uses this machine to test new designs, materials, glues, and other changes.
Basketball sales have escalated dramatically with the sport's popularity. Figures from 1998 show that 3.6 million balls were sold in the United States alone for a total of about $60 million. Given the record number of television viewers for the 1999-2000 NBA Championships, many parents and children are likely to purchase basketballs to test their own slam-dunking skills. Participation in the sport and sale of basketballs shows no sign of slowing down.
Another aspect of the worldwide popularity of basketball is that it has sharpened collectors' enthusiasm for souvenir balls, autographed balls, and those from key moments of the great players' games. An example with a high price tag is the basketball Wilt Chamberlain used to score 100 points in a game; it was sold in the 1990s for $551,844.
Where to Learn More
The Diagram Group. The Rule Book: The Authoritative, Up-to-Date, Illustrated Guide to the Regulations, History, and Object of All Major Sports. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.
Jacobs, A. G., ed. Basketball Rules in Pictures. New York: Perigee Books, 1966.
Feldman, Jay. "A Hole New Ball Game." Sports Illustrated 18, no. 26 (December 26, 1994): 102.
Jaffe, Michael. "For Better Shooting, Think Big: A Team of Ohio Entrepreneurs Insists that Their Oversized Basketball Will Improve Your Touch." Sports Illustrated 74, no. 15 (April 22, 1991): 5.
Mooney, Loren. "Get a Grip." Sports Illustrated (November 30, 1998): 16.
Tooley, Jo Ann. "On a Roll." U.S. News & World Report 107, no. 8 (August 21, 1989): 66.
Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., Inc. http://www.rawlings.com . (December 14, 2000).
— Gillian S. Holmes