What’s the Purpose of the Dots on a Basketball?

istock / istock

To reveal just why and how those little speckles made their way to your basketball, we’ll need to take a trip back to the early days of the sport, dabble in a little bit of physics, and swing on over to the leather company which makes those dots possible.

Physics and the Early Anatomy of a Basketball

Ever tried to grab a handful of ice cubes, only to have them all slip out of your hands?

This is a consequence of an absence of friction. When two forces smash together, friction is the force that breaks up, slows down, or otherwise alters that movement. The more points of contact an object has with a surface, the more friction it has. It’s what makes concrete pebbles easy to run on and those traction marks on your snow boots work against the ice to keep you from flip-flopping on your bum.

Without much friction, things get slippery. In the ice cube example, those slippery cubes, with their sleek, non-resistant surfaces, combined with your undoubtedly well-moisturized hands, have few points of contact upon which to create friction. In line with Newton’s First Law of Motion, the ice cubes then freely exercise their right to be objects in motion that stay in motion and, thus, slip out of your hands and scatter all across your kitchen floor.

Such a diminished level of friction is beneficial in some sports. It’s what makes bowling balls glide down the lane and adds fluidity to Sasha Cohen’s figure skating routines. But for basketballs? Friction-less balls would scatter about like so many large, bounce-able marbles.

And that’s exactly what the early basketballs were doing all across the court in 1894. At the time, teams were using soccer balls. The slick surface of the soccer ball, combined with the oil-polished hardwood gym floors, created a slip-and-slide during game time. Players became less concerned about the purpose of the game (making baskets) and more concerned about just trying to hold on to the ball.

Fortunately, James Naismith, the charming, well-mustachioed P.E. teacher who invented the game back in 1891, was not about to let a soccer ball get in the way of his legacy. Naismith called forth his good buddy and sporting goods maker, A.G. Spalding, and the two collaborated on a design for a new ball that would enhance the players’ ability to handle it. They decided that the ball not only had to be larger, but it also needed an added source of friction.

This is where the dots come in.

The dots, combined with a rough, well-treated leather, would create more points of contact with the court and enhance the amount of friction over the ball. Thus, the first pebbled Spalding basketball was born, and the players celebrated: they could dribble the ball and it wouldn’t go flying out of their hands. It was a miracle of innovation, and one that sticks to this day.

The dots today

The dots (or “pebbles” as they’re known in the basketball-making trade) are all over basketballs today, and the Horween Leather Company has been manufacturing the NBA’s speckled leather for over 60 years.

Having started its foray into tanning back in 1905, Horween Leather nudged its way into the sports trade through its founders’ love of football. One of the company’s founders, Arnold Horween Sr., had a strong history with the Harvard football team. Horween got him in touch with George Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears, who then hooked Horween up with the Chicago-based Wilson football company. From then on, it was football-making destiny.

At the time of Wilson and Horween’s collaboration, Spalding was using an alternate leather tanning company to produce its basketball leather, but when that leather company fell to bankruptcy, Spalding found itself looking for a new source of horsehide. Noting Horween’s reputation for quality NFL products, Spalding made the leap over to Horween. It paid off: Horween stands strong as not only the maker of all NFL and NBA game balls, but also as the only tanning company surviving in all of Chicago.

Horween’s process of making that special NBA-certified leather is no easy bag of chips. It involves inspecting, baiting, pickling, tanning, re-tanning “in tack” (i.e.: adding essential oils to make the leather stickier and easier to grip), drying, and grading all the horsehide leather. At the end of its long journey, the leather is taken to a special press, where dots are embossed to create each individual pebble. Both basketballs and footballs get the exact same pebbling embossment (with the exception of Wilson-brand products, which has its own special mold).

While the extra points of contact provided by those tack-covered pebbles do wonders for a modern basketball, those speckles can’t completely prevent the ball slipping from your hands. When you play basketball, you sweat, and when you sweat, things get slippery, which can cause your high-quality basketball to slip straight out of your hands.

No shame! Even Michael Jordan got sweaty palms. While nothing can 100% insure that you keep your mighty grip on the ball at all times, a little human intervention can better prepare your ball for game play. If you have a fairly new ball, consider breaking it in by playing a few practice games ahead of time. The contact of the ball with a surface, like, say, concrete (a surface ripe with friction-friendly pebbles), creates a more rugged terrain on your ball. The more pebbled your leather, the better the traction. The better the traction, the easier the ball is to handle. The easier the ball is to handle, the more likely you are to win that game of HORSE with your neighbor (depending who your neighbor is).