Why Do Basketballs Have Lines?

(Last Updated On: March 14, 2023)

Even if you’ve never played basketball yourself, you’re probably familiar with the black lines wrapping around them. Given how much money is invested into sports, you probably figure those lines serve some kind of functional purpose even if you don’t know what that purpose is exactly. If you’re on this post, the lines on basketballs has probably lived rent-free in your head for at least the last couple sentences. So why do basketballs have lines?

What Did Basketballs Look Like Before?

You’re probably unsurprised that basketballs did not look like how they do now back in 1891 when the sport was invented by a guy named James Naismith. Basketball was invented in Massachusetts when a PE teacher wanted to create a sport with less risk of bodily injury than football. It was also created to be playable indoors, since winter in Massachusetts is pretty cold. 

While the sport was invented in 1891, you’re probably quite unsurprised to hear that the basketball ball wasn’t used when the sport was still coming into its own. For the first three years of the sport, they used a soccer ball. If you’ve ever tried to dribble a soccer ball, you might be a little confused, since you can’t really dribble a soccer ball. That little hitch was covered though, since dribbling wasn’t introduced into the ruleset until 1901. Also, remember when we said basketball was invented to reduce the risk of injury? Well the first basketball game didn’t do that, because it ended with black eyes and a dislocated shoulder. 

The very first basketball-specific ball was created in 1894 by A.G. Spalding, both a company now and a baseball guy. Anyway, Spalding (the company is named after the guy) is super involved in the sports game. They’re the reason the word “Spalding” is on your football, basketball, volleyball, baseball mitt, golf ball… You know what, they’re just everywhere. But basketball. The first Spalding basketball was made of leather and held together with laces like a football with a total circumference of 32 inches, which is a couple inches more than the modern basketball. They were made by sewing leather strips together, still giving them the kind of “orange peels” look. 

The Modern Ball

Nowadays, basketballs in the NBA are 29.5 inches in circumference as a standard. In the WNBA, the standard size is 29 inches. Leather remained the choice material for a long time, though synthetic materials became popular in the 90s. They gained popularity for being cheaper, more durable, and being more suitable for outdoor use. The NBA still uses leather, though, which means they have to be “broken in” before being used in games. Because there’s no standard way to break in a leather basketball beyond actually playing with the ball, they get pretty picky about it within the NBA. There was a two month stint in 2006 when the NBA tried to use a non-leather basketball, which ended… with a lot of complaints. Hence them only being used for like two months. Synthetic basketballs are used in most other leagues, though, including the WNBA.

The end goal of breaking in a leather basketball is to make it easier to palm. That’s why deflating a basketball is a thing. Basketballs would get dimples to make them easier to handle, but when it came to leather balls it was the sweat and oils from players’ hands that made them preferable. The recessed rubber lines that basketballs have serve a similar function, with the grooves making them easier to control and handle.

So now you know something new about basketballs, see if you know other balls here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.



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