A game ball's road to the NBA Finals

A game ball's long journey ends in the hands of the world's best player in the NBA Finals. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

OAKLAND, Calif. -- From slaughterhouses across North America to a family-run tannery on Chicago's North Side. From a manufacturing facility in China to an Alabama warehouse for testing. Then, finally, to all 30 teams.

Every summer a fresh batch of official NBA basketballs arrives, crisp and orange and brand new. But before one can enter an NBA game, a choice must be made.

With about 16 minutes left on the game clock Sunday prior to tipoff in the Cleveland Cavaliers' Game 2 win over the Golden State Warriors, officiating crew chief Tony Brothers jogged onto the court at Oracle Arena with three basketballs in his hands.

Brothers walked toward where the Cavaliers players were warming up and nodded at LeBron James, who walked over. James took the balls one at a time, looking each one over, rolling them in his hands, squeezing them, dribbling one. Then James pointed to one and nodded.

Minutes later, it was the Warriors' turn. Stephen Curry inspected each ball, rolling them in his hands, dribbling each a few times.

"If it's on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being brand new to 10 being the ball that Jerry West used to play with, I like it at a 6," Curry said earlier this week. "More on the broken-in side. It's softer."

The players had agreed on a selection, and Brothers walked toward the scorer's table with all three balls and told an official which would be the game ball -- and indeed, it was far more worn than new, with its share of scratches. The other two balls: backups.

To those watching at home, the ball is probably an afterthought -- just a spherical blur zipping around the floor. But to players, and especially point guards, the smallest details matter.

Before home games, the Oklahoma City Thunder's top security representative will personally deliver the game ball to star point guard Russell Westbrook in the locker room. Westbrook then takes it, inspects it, rubs it, dribbles it, holds it, smells it and, after approving it, passes it to each of his teammates, a sacred ceremony before the players circle up and sprint out of the tunnel.

The league's history is littered with such tales, especially of how far some players go to make sure the game ball is precisely to their liking.

This is the story of game balls, from their calculated creation all the way to their NBA debuts -- and then what they face once there.

In a warren of brick buildings spanning four acres on the North Branch of the Chicago River, Skip Horween carries on the family business. The Horween Leather Company is in its fourth generation since Isadore Horween, Skip's great grandfather, founded it in 1905.

The 150-employee operation is one of the oldest continually running leather tanneries in the country, the only one in Chicago, and also the exclusive supplier of the cowhide leather used to make official NFL and NBA game balls.

Horween's deal with the NFL is decades old; its deal with the NBA is only about a decade old, after gaining it from a family-run tannery in Pennsylvania. But it wasn't an easy acquisition.

For 11 years, Horween sent samples to Spalding, the official game ball of the NBA since 1983, and each time they were told it wasn't good enough. Some were too slippery, others too sticky. "We'd fix one thing, then cause another problem," said Skip, president of Horween. "It took us a long time to get it right."

One reason Spalding eventually partnered with Horween is because the balls broke in much quicker and were ready for game play significantly faster with its leather. Before, that process took six months; now, it takes two, said Paul Sullivan, senior vice president of Spalding.

Horween, which has operated out of the same factory since 1920, receives shipments of about 3,000 cattle hides a week, largely from slaughterhouses in Iowa and Ontario, Canada. Once they arrive, the hides go through a nearly three-week process.

"[NBA players] are good enough to feel the most subtle difference in the product. They might not necessarily tell you what's different but they can tell you that it is different almost instantaneously. That's a big challenge on our part." Skip Horween

Hair is removed, hides are selected, split to the desired thickness, re-tanned in large rotating drums, then dried, finished to customers specifications and sent off to be cut and sewn. A 1,000-ton press with German-made embossing plates gives the leather its distinct pebbling.

And Skip, a Bulls fan who can wax nostalgic about the Michael Jordan era and how Chicago Stadium used to be a raucous madhouse, said attention to detail for the leather is vital.

"[NBA players] are good enough to feel the most subtle difference in the product," Skip said. "They might not necessarily tell you what's different but they can tell you that it is different almost instantaneously. That's a big challenge on our part. It becomes really important that we define what the leather is supposed to feel like and then try to get it like that every single time."

For example, the hides have to be devoid of scratches, scars or branding -- anything that might produce a subtle change in texture.

It takes about three to four square feet of leather per ball, and they'll ship off roughly 10,000 square feet of it four to five times per year to the manufacturer in China that Spalding has worked with for more than 20 years.

From there, each one takes about four days to come to life.

Roughly 3,200 yards of nylon winding from Japan is used to form the outside of an inflated bladder, producing the ball's inner carcass. Then the inner sphere is covered with rubber from Malaysia and Vietnam. Eight leather panels are then glued together by hand.

Once they're finished, balls are shipped via ocean freight to Alexander City, Alabama, the main campus of Russell Athletics, which acquired Spalding in 2003. That's where, during a process that lasts about three to four weeks, the testing begins. Balls are checked for diameter, weight and rebound -- so they're dropped from six feet and expected to bounce 52-56 inches high. Inflation: 8 PSI. Circumference: 29.50-29.75 inches.

The balls are also fed into one of two wooden wheels that catapult them into a maple wood plate -- most NBA hardwood floors are maple -- about six feet away. Each ball is bounced about 50 times to help, as Sullivan said, "wake up" the leather and start the break-in process.

Around the first week of July, 72 new balls come in, giving teams about two months to use them.

"It's the sweat from the athletes, the oils from their hands, the dirt from the court, all those things -- that's the only way to truly break in a leather basketball," Sullivan said. "We could run it through the bounce machine 500 times and it wouldn't do what the human play does to the leather cover material."

If the balls weren't broken in, they'd be quite uncomfortable to play with, said Eric Housen, the Warriors' equipment/travel manager.

"If you take the new balls out of the box ... and you shoot for an hour, the tips of your fingers will be bloody, just because the thread is so new," Housen said. "Then, over time, the dirt that it picks up on the floor, the sweat, everything -- it starts to turn it brown. Right before it gets from orange to brown is kind of where they want to play."

Years ago, many players preferred balls some referred to as "whoppers" and "malt balls," named after the candies' color.

"The old-school guys -- they liked it dark," Housen said. "It would almost be black."

"Today's balls are hard and slick," said Jim Barnett, who played with seven teams from 1966-77 and has spent nearly the past three decades as the Warriors' television analyst. "We had old balls. They were soft. You could grip them. You can't grip these balls."

A longtime league executive said players would do most anything to keep preferred game balls in circulation -- marking them with dots, smiley faces, small skulls, an X -- to help them recognize it when officials brought it to them before a game. The executive said it wasn't unusual for teams to use worn-in game balls for all 41 home games.

"Look at some of the old playoff games," the executive said. "It's dark brown because those shooters love that nice, worn-down feel. Now, the ball has to look pristine because we're on TV, so they don't let those things hang around. The refs wouldn't even allow it to be in the pile. Now, I don't think you could get a ball through three or four games at the most."

If a ball was selected that some players didn't like, there could be issues. The executive recalled one point guard who so hated the game ball chosen one night that early in the first quarter of a home game, he "passed" it straight to a courtside fan who was holding a beer.

Naturally, beer spilled all over the ball, and it had to be replaced. "If he didn't like a ball, he wasn't going to keep it out there," the executive said.

Housen also recalled a player who stormed into the locker room after going 0-of-8 from the field in the first half: "Who picked the ball!?! That thing's a brick! What are you doing?!?"

It's not as though game balls from years ago were in great shape.

"Our balls used to be really crappy," Barnett said. To illustrate his point, Barnett cited his playing days with the Knicks in the mid-1970s.

"I had this Lexol leather cleaner and I would take a towel and put some of that stuff on it and clean the balls before a game because they were so freaking dirty. Then Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier would say, 'That's great. That's a lot better.'"

The NBA celebrated the anniversary of the ABA by allowing some of its ex-ABA teams to use a red, white and blue ball -- similar to what was used in the now-defunct league -- during a mid-1990s preseason game.

"I have no idea if they dribbled these balls three times and said they're good to go or what, but by the end of the first quarter, the home team uniforms had red white and blue on them, the floor had red white and blue on it," the executive said. "As soon as it got wet, as soon as it got sweat on it, it was a clown show."

Another disaster occurred in 2006, when the NBA switched its official game ball to a microfiber composite that, it was said, would offer better grip, feel, consistency and "eliminates the need for a break-in period, which is a necessity for the current leather ball."

It marked the first change to a game ball in 35 years and only the second in 60 seasons.

And it was a complete failure.

Many star players complained that the balls were sticking to their hands, becoming lodged between the rim and backboard, and weren't able to absorb moisture like the leather ball. Steve Nash, then a Phoenix Suns point guard and two-time reigning MVP, wore bandages on his fingers because of cuts caused by the new ball.

"That ball, it was cutting guys up," the executive said. "I remember guys that season were trying to slip old game balls in and saying, 'Get rid of that f-----g ball and use the old ball!' Refs would always negate it, but they tried every single game."

The balls were only in circulation for two months before being pulled.

"I guess the biggest learning from that is getting the players involved in the process earlier if you're going to make a change like that," said Sullivan, of Spalding. "They aspire to play with that leather basketball, is what we learned."

The footballs didn't have enough air, and the NFL believed the New England Patriots -- and specifically star quarterback Tom Brady -- were to blame, all part of a scheme to gain an edge. So the league dropped the hammer, suspending him, fining the team and revoking draft picks in order to protect "the integrity of the game."

But long before "Deflategate," the practice of putting extra air in or letting it out of a game ball -- beyond the regulated amount -- was used by some of the NBA's biggest teams and stars.

Take Shaquille O'Neal, for instance.

"Sometimes, in the games during all my championship runs, if a ball was too hard, I let air out," the former All-Star center said in a recent episode of "The Big Podcast With Shaq." "I'd have a needle. A friend of mine would have a needle and I would get the game ball. ... I needed that extra grip, but I wasn't doing that for cheating purposes. I just needed the extra grip for my hands so I could palm it, a la Michael Jordan, the way he used to palm it.

O'Neal said he'd walk up to the ball rack before a game, "Get the ball, 'Tsssss' let a little bit of air out, squeeze it -- OK, good."

Was he cheating? He believes not.

"Because, first of all, I'm not aware of any letter of the law that says, you can't let air out of the ball," O'Neal said. "I'm not aware of that. Second of all, it's all about my [comfort level]. A lot of times, if the balls have too much air in them, they're too bouncy. I didn't want them to be bouncy. I needed that grip."

His teammates didn't complain, either, he said.

"No," he said, "especially when you're winning,"

O'Neal wasn't the first to follow that practice. Phil Jackson said he did so during his playing days with the early 1970s New York Knicks, including on their 1973 title team.

"What we used to do was deflate the ball," the Hall of Fame coach told the Chicago Tribune in a story published in 1986. "We were a short team with our big guys like Willis [Reed], our center, only about 6-8 and Jerry Lucas also 6-8, [Dave] DeBusschere, 6-6. So what we had to rely on was boxing out and hoping the rebound didn't go long.

"To help ensure that, we'd try to take some air out of the ball. You see, on the ball it says something like 'inflate to 7 to 9 pounds.' We'd all carry pins and take the air out to deaden the ball.

"It also helped our offense because we were a team that liked to pass the ball without dribbling it, so it didn't matter how much air was in the ball. It also kept other teams from running on us because when they'd dribble the ball, it wouldn't come up so fast."

Former Knicks radio play-by-play man Marv Albert told the New York Post that Knicks forward Bill Bradley personally deflated balls.

"Bill was so precise,'' Albert told The Post this January. "One time, on the road, and I was sitting courtside, he took a pin out of either his jersey or shorts on the bench and guys surrounded him so nobody could see and put it into the ball. Then he started bouncing the ball. I never mentioned it on the air."

Because of such tactics, Jackson carried an air-pressure gauge with him, according to Sam Smith's famous book, "The Jordan Rules":

"Like that night in Miami in the 1989-90 season. Jackson always tests the poundage in the game balls before the game. The balls that night in Miami were well below the required 7.5 to 8.5 pounds. An innocent oversight? Unlikely. With a softer ball players can't dribble as fast and the game slows. It was what a less talented team like Miami wanted against a running team like the Bulls. Jackson got the balls pumped up and the Heat were deflated.

"It works the way other, too; Jackson has caught the Lakers trying to sneak balls with 15 to 17 pounds of air into the game. Why? Magic Johnson likes a high dribble, and a livelier ball results in long rebounds that key the kind of fast break the Lakers love to use, especially at home."

Jackson also found deflated balls in Portland, the book reported: "Why, since the Trail Blazers liked to run? Because they crash the boards, and soft balls will stay on the rim longer for offensive rebounds, which was an advantage they had over the Bulls, who also liked to run."

"One time, on the road, and I was sitting courtside, [Bill Bradley] took a pin out of either his jersey or shorts on the bench and guys surrounded him so nobody could see and put it into the ball. Then he started bouncing the ball. I never mentioned it on the air." Marv Albert

A league spokesman said he was unaware of any punishments handed down at any point through the years for any players inflating or deflating a game ball, and that it's unclear when rules regarding the mandated PSI for a game ball were put in place.

The current rules state that home team's equipment managers or ball boys take three basketballs to the official's locker room prior to a game. There, the balls are inspected for wear and tear and ensured that they comply with the NBA-approved ball pressure of between 7 ½ to 8 ½ PSI.

The crew chief then brings all three balls to the court during the warm-up period. The officials work with a player from each team -- it doesn't have to be a captain -- to select the game ball. Each player tests the balls, and if both players agree on one, that ball is used.

"I used to pick the game ball all the time," Barnett said. "I was very meticulous about that. I didn't want a ball that was too new. I wanted it to be a little softer."

However, if the players cannot agree and each pick a different ball, then the officials select the third ball. The other two balls are kept at the scorer's table in case the game ball is damaged.

Game officials have also been provided with portable air gauges to carry with them to each of their assigned games.

Housen said current policies are much more rigid, meaning there's little chance for players to get away with any shenanigans. Said the longtime league executive, "The opportunities for new game ball stories are gone, because everything has become more homogenous."

As a ball boy for the Warriors in the 1980s, Housen rebounded for Hall of Fame guard Chris Mullin on a daily basis. Housen never had to move too much; mostly he just stood beneath the rim to collect the ball after it swooshed the net.

"He was the easiest guy in the world to rebound for," Housen said.

But Mullin was also meticulous.

"If he came onto the court and that rim is a 16th of an inch off, or the net was off, he'd know, and sure enough, we'd go get the tape measure and it would be off," Housen said.

Curry is the same way, Housen said. Like Mullin, if something was off, even slightly, Curry would know, especially if it involved the ball.

Then Housen paused. He smiled.

"But with Steph, it don't matter," he said. "Because it's going in anyways."