Feb 22, 2023 - Sports

Basketball of future built near Austin

KJ Martin handles a prototype ball.

K.J. Martin of the Houston Rockets handles a prototype basketball at the 2023 NBA All Star AT&T Slam Dunk Contest on February 18 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

A prototype basketball that could revolutionize the sport and featured in last weekend's NBA All-Star dunk contest was built in Pflugerville.

Driving the news: ​​The 3D Airless Prototype Basketball, designed by Wilson Sporting Goods Co., was made just north of Austin, at the lab of 3D printing company EOS.

  • The ball looks like a giant black Wiffle ball.
  • Houston Rockets star K.J. Martin used the ball in the contest — but didn't win.

Why it matters: Basketball pickup players everywhere could soon avoid annoying pre-game conversations about which ball has the right amount of air.

What they're saying: "The quality control was mind-blowing," Jon Walker, business development manager at EOS, tells Axios.

  • The company traditionally works with automotive, aerospace and medical device companies to build everything from rocket components to hip replacements.
  • EOS sent a ball a day to Wilson's test facility in Ohio, and received daily feedback about its bounce, roll and roundness.
A prototype of the ball during its construction.
A prototype of the ball during its construction. Photo: Courtesy of Wilson

How it works: A laser sweeping across a powder bed, over and over again in an etch-a-sketch fashion, builds up the basketball, Nadine Lippa, innovation manager at Wilson, said in a video.

  • Even something as small as adding a logo to the ball could change its mass distribution.
  • Because it's a ball, "you're trying to get something to uniformly respond in all directions in the same way," Dave Krzeminski, a consulting engineer at EOS, tells Axios.

Context: Spalding offers a "NeverFlat" model — but, per the company's description, it's good for a year.

  • The new Wilson model can't deflate because there's no closed-off inside space.

The challenge: Building a basketball that's truly playable, with that just-right bounce — a journey that took Wilson years as it sorted through material combinations.

  • The ball, comprised of black see-through lattice, nearly fits the performance specifications of a regulation NBA basketball including its weight and size, per Wilson.
  • "Once I actually saw the ball in person, it was crazy," Martin told Forbes. "I didn’t expect a basketball with holes to bounce and feel like a normal leather basketball."

Between the lines: The basketball is almost silent while it's dribbled, Krzeminski says.

  • For proprietary reasons, EOS would not disclose the material used in the ball except to say it's made of an elastomer.

What's next: Lippa, the Wilson innovation manager, tells Axios she is "confident" the airless ball will be available to the general public "in the next year or so."

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