Posted May 31, 2017
With the NBA Finals scheduled to begin this week, here’s an idea worth pondering: Pro basketball – and any other level of basketball, for that matter – has been made infinitely better thanks to contributions from a pair of overlooked players: natural gas and oil. Seriously.
Here’s how: Because of components derived from natural gas and oil, basketball is a much better game today – faster, more skillful and athletic – than the one Dr. James Naismith invented 125 years ago in Springfield, Mass., for his YMCA class. (Summer travel tip: Springfield, basketball’s birthplace, today is home to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.)
Now, let’s count some of the ways today’s hoops game is great thanks to contributions from natural gas and oil:
Dr. Naismith borrowed a soccer ball – along with a pair of peach baskets – for his new creation. The first manufactured basketballs (1894) were made by a bicycle company, replaced by Spalding in the late 1890s. Generally, the choice of basketballs was left up to the teams, but the earliest ones had laces, like a football, and struggled to maintain their shape. These problems made for funny bounces on the dribble-drive. Concealed laces didn’t come into vogue until 1929. (By the way, the peach baskets had their bottoms, which meant that after each made shot, the ball had to be fetched for play to continue.)
Today’s official NBA basketball, made by Spalding, dispenses with the laces issue by featuring a 100 percent leather cover over a butyl rubber bladder, which holds the air. Typically, the bladder is made from components that result from a process known as thermal “cracking,” which is the breaking of a long chain of hydrocarbons into a shorter one. Certainly, it’s the key player in each ball’s true bounce and feel, both of which are fundamental for every fast break, layup, rebound and three-ball from downtown. Maybe the next time your favorite long-range bomber dials up a three you’ll remember that butyl rubber bladder. (OK, maybe not.)
The Swish! and the Squeeeek!
Thankfully, Naismith’s closed-bottom peach baskets long ago gave way to metal hoops with nets. We won’t take credit for that innovation, but natural gas is key to the “Swish!” of a basketball finding nothing but net. Today’s nets are polyester, which is made from a chemical reaction involving petroleum. Here’s a quick look at the chain of events needed to make polyester: First, crude oil is refined to produce a hydrocarbon called naptha, then the naptha is used to make ethylene, which in turn is used to produce PET, whose full name – polyethylene terephthalate – doesn’t roll off the tongue like Chinanu Onuaku of the Houston Rockets. Finally, PET is used to manufacture products like polyester. Another petrochemical, polypropylene – also produced partially from gas, oil and propane – is added to the bottom of the nets to help them withstand the game’s biggest dunkers.
Now, about that sound – the sound of basketball shoes gripping and skidding across a polished, hardwood floor. An NBA court, whether it’s made with the maple found in most arenas around the league or the red oak of Boston’s TD Garden, typically features a finishing coat of an oil-based, high-gloss polyurethane, which helps the players accelerate, run and cut on a dime. There’s also the players’ footwear, which has evolved from Chuck Taylor hightops to Adidas Superstars to today’s many variations of the famous Air Jordans, all made with materials derived from petroleum.
The uniforms are also better suited for today’s players thanks to energy. In the early days, NBA jerseys and shorts were made from materials like satin, cotton and plain polyester, which were not as breathable. In the 1970s, mesh polyester came into play, with moisture-wicking technology improving through the 1990s and early 2000s. Today’s uniforms, currently made by Adidas, use a ClimaCool® mesh technology to help draw moisture and heat away from players as they sprint across the court. This material is a 190-gram polyester blend – again, manufactured using a chemical reaction involving petroleum.
Powering the Game
The NBA set the all-time regular-season attendance record for the third consecutive season with more than 21.9 million going to games.
Boston’s TD Garden has a seating capacity of 18,624, and over 41 regular-season games – that’s a lot of people traffic, necessitating a lot of energy. At 755,000 square feet, the arena, typical for league facilities, is fully equipped with three private restaurants, 90 executive suites, a multi-million-dollar, high-definition video scoreboard and 360-degree LED technology throughout. In Massachusetts, 65 percent of electricity in the state comes from natural gas, helping power much of the city of Boston, including the Celtics’ 10-story entertainment center.
And for the season’s 41 away games, the Celtics – and the rest of the league – usually travel by plane. Flying on both Boeing 757s and Airbus Group SE 319s, teams like the Celtics wouldn’t be able to keep up with their jam-packed schedules without the kerosene jet fuel that gets them there. During the 2015-2016 season, NBA teams traveled more than 1.3 million miles to games. With planes like the Airbus using 640 gallons of fuel per hour and the Boeing 757 holding more than 11,000 gallons of fuel per plane, the NBA uses a lot of petroleum products to get through the season.
So, whether you’re cheering on your favorite team from the arena or taking a trip through basketball history in Springfield, know that this American sport we love is great in large part because of energy – powering, improving and completing it – just as it does with so many other parts of our lives.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.