My family and I came to Chicago from India on Jan 21, 1995. In the 20 years since, I’ve been fortunate enough to get my hands on all types of Basketball basketballs. And using them all taught me some interesting things.
This guide breaks down unique makes and models of basketballs by their similarities and differences in:
- Size and skill level – Who they’re made for
- Setting – Where you use them
- Brands – Companies that sell them
- Material – What they’re made of
- Affordability – What they price at
- User experience – How they look and feel
- Takeaways – What I learned about basketball ownership
From ages 8-14 in elementary schools, I slowly learned to love the game of basketball; a process I credit to playing with and owning a bunch of different basketballs made for newbies and small budgets.
Nerf Indoor Basketball
The Nerf Indoor Basketball Set fights boredom for when your apartment neighbors constantly beg to keep the noise down, for when it’s too cold to go play outside or for when your brain numbs from screens at work. The set comes with a noiseless, spongy ball and a portable plastic hoop that easily mounts onto doors or (cubicle) walls.
With Nerf hoops, I loved being able to toss these around from a bed or chair trying to make as many as I could in a row. (I never got streaked past 11.) It might seem meaningless, compared to playing real basketball, but there is at least one tangible benefit of this game: it conditions your mind to respond to the habit of repetitions, a key trait in becoming good at anything, regardless of the actual makes and misses.
NBA team Mini Basketball
When we couldn’t play on the courts at the neighborhood’s Warren Park and the weather was nice outside, my friends and I used a Phoenix Suns mini basketball — the first real basketball my dad bought me — to play on a home-made 7 or 8 foot hoop. We’d steal milk crates every few weeks from a supermarket on Devon Ave., hollow out the bottoms with scissors, nail the basket to utility poles in our street alleys and viola, a legitimate basketball hoop.
A made shot with a mini basketball — about the size of a volleyball — rattles perfectly through these cubic baskets. For younger kids, the weight and size of these basketballs are comfortable enough to shoot on regular basketball rims as high as 10 feet.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when you start learning to love playing basketball, for me, it was the summer before the 7th grade when owning this mini basketball enabled me to shoot around, dribble and practice for hours at the Warren Park courts and in my apartment’s backyard alleys by myself or with friends.
Baden 400 Rubber Basketball
As I started to hoop more and more, I outgrew the Suns ball and picked up a Baden rubber basketball. Like the mini ball, it was cheap, made of rubber and allowed me to practice on every outdoor court I went to: at school, at the park and in the alleys.
Right out of the box, this ball stings harder than most others, if you get popped in the face with it. The Baden rubber ball’s sharp spikes on the entire 360 degrees of surface make it uncomfortable to dribble and shoot initially, but with use and time, it gets better. The spikes lose their edge and the painted text disappear from outdoor use, and the ball becomes a perfectly smooth orange ball. While that makes it difficult to grip and palm the ball, it’s a non-issue considering most kids can’t dunk until they become teenagers.
For under $10, this is a low-maintenance ball that, while you can use on indoor courts, is best to play with in driveways, alleys and parks and best for half-court games like 21, H-O-R-S-E, 1-on-1, 2-on-2, etc.
Movin’ On Up
As you get older, you develop a sense of what separates a great ball from a decent one and what separates competitive games and players from just-for-fun ones. You start playing full-court 5-on-5 games during which players use the best ball available on the court. You start to (or attempt to) play for your school’s basketball team and other forms of organized basketball.
Great basketballs grip, dribble, pass and shoot better than the average rock and are made for the ball player serious about consistently, getting better.
Spalding TF-Series / Zi/O Model / Infusion Basketballs
In the average price range of $25-40 of all basketballs, the Spalding line of TF basketballs, particularly the TF-250, TF-500 and the Infusion basketballs were the most common basketballs I remember around Chicago.
They’re made for all surfaces. They’re made for hands of all sizes. They’re each designed in different tobacco colors. And, they’re made from different composite leathers, which are watered down, i.e., broken-in leather versions of the official NBA and FIBA basketballs. Lucky for us amateurs, we experience first-tier basketball at average-tier prices. The soft grip makes every one of these basketball makes fun to play and train with.
Although I never owned the Spalding Infusion basketball, this ball was a big deal when it was introduced in 2001, because it had a built-in pump, so you could increase or decrease air anytime you wanted without needing a pump and needle.
The Spalding Z i/o Basketball doesn’t require high maintenance and makes for an excellent ball you can play with indoors and outdoors.
Wilson Evolution Indoor Game Ball
I didn’t play with the EVOL until in college at Harper and NIU, but in the last 10 years, this microfiber composite leather ball became the most popular ball throughout Chicago. Probably the most stolen one, too. Both the intermediate and official sizes are approved by the NCAA (more specifically the Solution ball) and the NFHS so pickup and organized games everywhere use this ball.
In these last 10 years, I estimate buying at least 8 of these. $50 per ball isn’t chump change. You definitely feel the loss when someone steals yours or when you lose one yourself. Still, in the end, $50 for a ball that actually makes you want to go and stay in the gym all year-round is a small investment. The longer you use it, the better you take care of it, the endless your returns.
I credit this ball for my attachment to individual shoot-around sessions. Making baskets with an EVOL keeps people in gyms even when they get old.
Molten Official FIBA Basketball
I just ordered the official FIBA World Cup 2014 Leather Basketball. I’m excited to play with it and once I break it in for a few months, I’ll update this part with my opinion of it.
If you’re interested in buying it and trying it for yourself, it’s available for order from Molten USA.
Spalding Official NBA Basketball
After careful thought, I got off the fence and bought the Official NBA Game Ball, made in 100% genuine leather, for $120 on Amazon. MSRP is usually $140.
When I took the ball out of the box, I wanted to return it and complain to Amazon for sending me a fake official ball for my hundred bucks. When I read the reviews on this ball, everyone who rated it a 5, said the same thing: it sucks at first, but you’ll love it later. You just have to break in the real leather and it could be weeks and months of use before it plays like the best basketball money can buy.
So, I gave it some chances, but most pickup players at the gym do not have the patience to break this ball in. Everyone loves the EVOL. Eventually, I too gave up and begin using this ball outdoors to shoot around and considered the $100 a sunk cost. As I’m writing this, I feel like giving the official ball an honest try again and really break it in by using it at least 6 months, on an average of 3 times a week.
I’ll add the update when I do.
Spalding TF-Trainer 33.0″ Oversized Basketball
This ball is a training aide to improve shooting, dribbling and overall ball handling. I tried each of these drills with this but I found the best results to be in shooting. The ball is 15% larger and airier so shooting it from close distances into the rim not only challenges your accuracy but your wrist strength. After training for a few weeks, you’ll notice a stronger flick in the release on your jump shots, stationary shots and in the english of your layups.
There is no such thing as the best basketball. Each rock has its’ own unique elements and instead of matching them up against each other into yet another Greatest of All-Time conversation, you’re better off in just getting one, two or 3 and keep on using them. In Chicago, fans might love following the Bears, the Cubs, the Blackhawks more than the Bulls, but basketball is the most widely played sport all year-round, inside and outside. In all these team sports, weather is a factor, your friends’ availability is a factor, proper equipment is a factor. Basketball doesn’t have these restrictions.
A thing Michael Jordan frequently advises was not to force-feed kids the game of basketball at an earlier age, but instead to make them fall in love with the game of basketball. For some, it happens early and instantly, and they dedicate themselves to mastering the craft of basketball over a dozen years before the rest of us even graduate high school. The ball kept calling and they never stopped picking it up. For the rest of us, the trend usually goes the opposite direction because the truth is it won’t ever pay the bills as much as jobs with nice degrees and nice job titles do. And that’s not a bad or sad thing because you’re still just as free to develop and increase your capacity to love the game for your own reasons, as anyone in the pros.
If you have a particular model and make you’re obsessed with, please share on Quora.
Thanks for reading.