With the NBA playoffs just around the corner we wanted to take a look at one of the main components of the game, the basketball itself.
Just like MLB baseballs, NBA basketballs are made in a specific way with specific measurements and specs that they must adhere. This is to help level the playing field as much as possible when it comes to equipment, meaning that all advantages in the game are placed on the player’s abilities themselves and not from the ball.
So, as we root for our Chicago Bulls as they face the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, let’s dive into how basketballs are made for the NBA.
What Makes Up an NBA Basketball?
Believe it or not, all of the leather used for official NBA basketballs have come from the same place for the last 20 years. The Horween Leather Co
. in Chicago is one of the oldest leather tanneries in the United States and is the perfect supplier of the leather used to create NBA basketballs.
While the leather is from the same tannery, as of 2020 NBA basketballs are now produced by Chicago-based company Wilson instead of Spalding, which had been the manufacturer of NBA basketballs for the previous 37 years.
While the company producing the balls themselves has changed, the process the leather goes through is basically the same.
Individual pieces of leather are sorted and selected based on how clear the grain is. They are then colored and placed into drums where the leather is preserved and tanned. The leather is then stamped to give the ball its signature pebbling.
After the leather has gone through the press it is then painted to add color, durability, and feel. After this process the leather is dried and inspected to make sur that it meets all the criteria set forth by the NBA.
Once the leather pieces are approved, they are shipped out to a factory where they are cut and sewn together to form the shape of the ball.
The Inner Bladder
After the leather is prepared for the outer cover, the inner bladder must be created. The purpose of the inner bladder is to hold the air inside of the ball. Unlike a baseball
or a golf ball, the inside of a basketball needs to hold air to make it able to bounce during the game.
The inner bladder is made from black butyl rubber that is used due to its ability to retain air and bounce.
The butyl rubber is melted on a press that pushes out 12” W x .5” thick continuous sheets. These sheets are then cut into 18” long strips. These strips are then individually put through a press that will cut a 1” diameter hole in the rubber which will house the air tube used to inflate the balls.
Once the air tubes have been inserted, the bladder is then sent through a melding device that cuts the rounded edges and binds the edges to form seams. The bladder is then taken to a vulcanizing machine that heats the rubber while it’s inflated to help fully seal the rubber.
The bladders are then held, inflated, for 24 hours to make sure that all the seals are perfect and that the bladders can properly hold air.
Once the bladders have been proven to hold air, they are put through a machine that wraps nylon threads around it to help form the perfect circle. This is actually similar to the process for a baseball, but a baseball has the threads wrapped around a solid core
and not a rubber bladder holding air.
Forming the Cover of the Ball
After the leather has been processed and shipped to the factory it is then cut into six panels that will be used to wrap around the inner bladder.
With leather basketballs, the outer cover is stitched together using heavy-duty machines. The stitching is what creates the indents and channels in the basketball. Decals and lettering is then applied to the balls using a small heat press.
Finally, each ball is tested to ensure that it meets the quality standards set forth by the NBA. Official NBA basketballs need to adhere to certain specifications put forth by the NBA so that all of the balls are consistent and familiar to the players.
In fact, when the NBA switched from Spalding made basketballs to Wilson made ones in 2020, some of the players complained that they thought the balls felt different and were causing a change in their ability to play offense.
This idea was investigated and dismissed as they are so many other factors that could have caused the drop in stats for certain players like no fans in the stadium, covid protocols, and more.
The process of making an official NBA basketball is important in keeping the integrity of the game. If a ball is deformed or doesn’t meet the proper specs, it can cause a lot of issues for players that are used to a certain weight and feel of a ball.