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The Evolution of NBA Basketballs

Basketballs started off as regular soccer balls, borrowed for the purpose at the time of the games inception in 1891. Over the years they evolved to lose the valves and laces, have panels that could hold their shape and include the use of purpose designed synthetic materials to aid performance. Now in 2023 according to NBA and NCAA official ball supplier Wilson Size 7 basketballs, used in the NBA and most men’s leagues measure 29.5” in circumference and have a standard weight of 22 oz. Size 6 basketballs, used in the WNBA, women’s leagues and youth basketball measure 28.5” and have a standard weight of 20 oz.

The evolution of basketball is a fascinating journey that mirrors the sports rise from humble Canadian winter activity for boisterous students to global spanning juggernaut played and loved by billions.

The origins of the humble basketball

The first basketball games were played with soccer balls, the game was invented by Dr James Naismith in the winter of 1891 and he used the equipment he had on hand. There was no requirement for a specialized ball as the game of Basketball didn’t yet know what it was.

From 1894 A. G. Spalding & Bros took over as the official basketball producer at the request of Naismith. Following Naismith’s directions the company came up with a leather ball which was held together with laces. It weighed around 20 oz (0.56kg) and had a circumference of 32 inches (81cm), which was 4 inches (10cm) bigger than a soccer ball. Created with a rubber bladder, surrounded by an outer made up of stitched leather panels, the ball didn’t stylistically vary much from other balls around at the time, except in size.

Spalding had always been involved in the sports world since opening their first store in Chicago in 1876. They were a good choice, with founder Albert Goodwill Spalding being a retired baseball pitcher. Naismith soon produced the official rules of basketball and was sure to include, “the ball made by A.G. Spalding & Bros. shall be the official ball.”

Even though the spalding ball was a step ahead and more suitable to the game of basketball, the classic leather and laces had a major drawback for a game where accurate bouncing was desirable to encourage the use of dribbling. The ball’s inability to maintain its shape and the laces themselves made it hard to dribble accurately and consistently, limiting the dribble’s use as a weapon in games.

A.G. Spalding filed a Patent that is believed to be the original patent for a basketball. It had started to solve some of the mis-shaping issues affecting the ball. The inventor, George Pierce, was the first to abandon the practice of having each leather section taper to a single point at each end of the ball. This taper created construction problems where all the points met resulting in the balls not being balanced and eventually mis-shaping during use. This new design had a method of laying out the leather pieces in which the connecting seams do not have to converge on a single point.

In 1929 basketballs were re-designed for more bounce and with concealed laces and valves which eliminated erratic bounces. The balls were bigger, lighter and easier to handle. Suddenly the top coaches were looking for proficient dribblers to join their teams and actively encouraging the skill’s use in games. We were approaching the modern era of basketball design and manufacturing.

Basketballs and the rise of the NBA

In 1942 molded basketballs that maintained a constant shape and size replaced the stitched balls. While this meant they converted to a substance more like rubber, it gave huge leaps forward in both performance, manufacturing accuracy and cost. It had a smaller circumference of 30 inches (75cm), this became the official size in 1949. This is close to the official size and weight used in the NBA today.

Ahead of the 1958 NCAA Final Four long time Butler University sports coach Tony Hinkle was able to introduce the now iconic orange ball. Due to the use of leather, basketballs were coloured brown and difficult to see for both a player and spectator due to the ball’s rapid on-court movement. Hinkle had played a key role in promoting the 3-second rule and eliminating jump balls after each basket, he was a tinkerer and an innovator that hugely benefited the sport of basketball in many ways. Hinkle worked with Spalding to turn the hard to see brown basketballs into the more visible orange version that was first introduced at the 1958 Final Four. The ball was soon adopted by the NBA and turned into one of the most iconic sports accessories in the world.

In 1967 the American Basketball Association (ABA) played with red, white and blue basketball in a stylistic change designed to attract fans away from the “boring NBA” and to the new flashy league that encouraged all the fun elements of basketball.

But in general basketball design and performance wouldn’t change very much through the creation of the NBA in 1946 until the next major leap in the 1970’s.

In 1972 Spalding created the first Synthetic Leather Basketball, this allowed manufacturers to have the best of both worlds, the performance of a perfectly made round ball and the tactile feel and control of leather in the hand. This evolution was combined with changing the number of panels on the ball from 4 to 8, with the aim of increasing a player’s grip on the ball. The world of basketball was keying in on the aspects that made the sport exciting and high flying dunks were to be encouraged.

In 1983 the NBA adopted Spalding’s full-grain leather ball as its official ball. Despite Spaldings early and close association with basketball, almost from its inception as an organized sport, it was rival Wilson who held the initial contract with the NBA. New York based Wilson Sporting Goods supplied game balls during the NBA’s first 37 years, between 1946 and 1983. Spalding took over the contract in 1983 and would also hold the contract for 37 years, ending in 2021.

In 1992 Spalding upped the game once again, introducing the first composite leather covering. The key benefit of this change to the design increased the ball’s durability while maintaining the softness of traditional leather and also allowed for a further improved grip and control of the ball.

Since 1992 NBA Basketballs, and for that matter most elite level basketballs have remained largely the same. Some stylistic changes and gimmicks such as internal pumps came and went and then in the summer of 2006, the NBA introduced a new synthetic basketball with much fanfare. NBA Commissioner David Stern claimed the ball was “the best in the world.” This was billed as a huge leap forward and the first change to the NBA game ball in over 35 years. This was the future, this was Spaldings new Cross Traxxion™ microfiber material, and featured an interlocking cross-panel design.

Whatever the intention of the new ball, its reception wasn’t what the NBA and Spalding had hoped for.  Less than two months into the season the response from the players was one of overwhelming and universal criticism. The NBA announced in December that it would make only its third change to the game ball in its 60 year history. From the first game of 2007, the NBA would be going back to the old eight-panel leather ball.

Largely basketballs have remained pretty consistent since the use of composite leather was introduced.

In 2021, the NBA made the huge decision to end its 37 year partnership with Spalding and announced it would be returning to its original ball supplier Wilson. While the announcement was met with hesitance from fans and players alike, once the games started everyone seemed fine with the change.