Don't you always wonder why those scientific advances that make life tolerable—pop-tops on beer cans, for instance, or Velcro—take so long to arrive? Why hasn't someone figured out how to get the seeds out of a watermelon? What do researchers do all day?
Well, they're not wasting their time at the Wilson Sporting Goods Company in River Grove, Ill. Wilson's thinkers have come up with a partial solution to the problem of outdoor basketball. The problem is the ball: Leather ones are ruined by outdoor courts, and the tougher rubber ones, though they feel O.K. at first, turn slick and slippery when wet and wear out rapidly from the pounding they take.
So here comes the Grabber—according to Wilson, "the first major technological innovation in rubber basketball design in more than 20 years." Basically it is the same old playground ball, but with texture—lots of it. Instead of the low, rounded pebbling of traditional balls, the Grabber has 9,500 raised triangular nubs on its surface.
Sitting on a Wilson executive's desk, the ball looks pretty good, and the logic behind it is compelling: The high-rise triangles make the ball easier to grip and harder to wear down. In hoops, the playground is where rubber meets the road, and what we have here is essentially a spherical tire. In fact, says Paul Jones, vice-president, research and development, "The guy whose idea this was came here from a tire company."
And how does the thing work in a game? A few Sundays ago I invited five friends over to drink beer and test a brand-new Grabber on my driveway court. We played three-on-three to 15. The first comment came at 6-4. "It's pretty rough on your hands," said John, a former Big Ten middle linebacker.
At 9-7 one of the guys stopped and examined the way the asphalt was darkening the ball. "It looks like a tire," he said.
At 14-10 another player noted the ball's roughness and said, "It would help if you could graft skin from your heel onto your hand."
At the game's end, John said, "It is easy to grip."
Then I said, "Beer?"
A mixed review for the ball's handling qualities, but its durability seems above reproach. Mine has the road equivalent of five miles on it, and I believe it's good for about 40,000 miles or the life of the owner, whichever comes first.