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Play Ball – Basketbawl

As the NBA season tips off tonight, I’d love to say I’m caught up in the usual anticipation. Will Shaq’s health hold up so the Heat can repeat? Can Detroit win without Ben Wallace? Can the Bulls lose with Wallace? Who will win the next NBA lottery, my hometown Hawks or the Knicks?

For now, though, I’m distracted by a far more intriguing question: How long will the new ball last? The NBA is introducing a new ball this year, the first such change in 35 years, and the players are embracing it with an enthusiasm not seen since New Coke dribbled out of the soda tap. Spalding says the microfiber material is superior to good old leather. It stays dry when sweaty, has a more consistent feel, a better bounce. It’s a slam dunk.

To which the players – and Shaq, in particular – say, sorry, it’s an air ball (and given the big guy’s free-throw difficulties, he should know). The synthetic surface becomes too slippery or too sticky. It’s also too bouncy. Worse, it lacks the great touch of a worn-in ball that shooters count on (Mavs owner Mark Cuban even back-tracked and said the ball could be replaced if further testing reveals that it does, in fact, become slippery when wet. If stars like Steve Nash and Tracy McGrady continue to complain, my prediction is the new ball becomes the old ball by mid-season, and the latest example of a high-profile product failure.

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