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What’s the Purpose of the Dots on a Basketball?

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To reveal just why and how those little speckles made their way to your basketball, we’ll need to take a trip back to the early days of the sport, dabble in a little bit of physics, and swing on over to the leather company which makes those dots possible.

Physics and the Early Anatomy of a Basketball

Ever tried to grab a handful of ice cubes, only to have them all slip out of your hands?

This is a consequence of an absence of friction. When two forces smash together, friction is the force that breaks up, slows down, or otherwise alters that movement. The more points of contact an object has with a surface, the more friction it has. It’s what makes concrete pebbles easy to run on and those traction marks on your snow boots work against the ice to keep you from flip-flopping on your bum.

Without much friction, things get slippery. In the ice cube example, those slippery cubes, with their sleek, non-resistant surfaces, combined with your undoubtedly well-moisturized hands, have few points of contact upon which to create friction. In line with Newton’s First Law of Motion, the ice cubes then freely exercise their right to be objects in motion that stay in motion and, thus, slip out of your hands and scatter all across your kitchen floor.

Such a diminished level of friction is beneficial in some sports. It’s what makes bowling balls glide down the lane and adds fluidity to Sasha Cohen’s figure skating routines. But for basketballs? Friction-less balls would scatter about like so many large, bounce-able marbles.

And that’s exactly what the early basketballs were doing all across the court in 1894. At the time, teams were using soccer balls. The slick surface of the soccer ball, combined with the oil-polished hardwood gym floors, created a slip-and-slide during game time. Players became less concerned about the purpose of the game (making baskets) and more concerned about just trying to hold on to the ball.

Fortunately, James Naismith, the charming, well-mustachioed P.E. teacher who invented the game back in 1891, was not about to let a soccer ball get in the way of his legacy. Naismith called forth his good buddy and sporting goods maker, A.G. Spalding, and the two collaborated on a design for a new ball that would enhance the players’ ability to handle it. They decided that the ball not only had to be larger, but it also needed an added source of friction.

This is where the dots come in.

The dots, combined with a rough, well-treated leather, would create more points of contact with the court and enhance the amount of friction over the ball. Thus, the first pebbled Spalding basketball was born, and the players celebrated: they could dribble the ball and it wouldn’t go flying out of their hands. It was a miracle of innovation, and one that sticks to this day.

The dots today

The dots (or “pebbles” as they’re known in the basketball-making trade) are all over basketballs today, and the Horween Leather Company has been manufacturing the NBA’s speckled leather for over 60 years.

Having started its foray into tanning back in 1905, Horween Leather nudged its way into the sports trade through its founders’ love of football. One of the company’s founders, Arnold Horween Sr., had a strong history with the Harvard football team. Horween got him in touch with George Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears, who then hooked Horween up with the Chicago-based Wilson football company. From then on, it was football-making destiny.

At the time of Wilson and Horween’s collaboration, Spalding was using an alternate leather tanning company to produce its basketball leather, but when that leather company fell to bankruptcy, Spalding found itself looking for a new source of horsehide. Noting Horween’s reputation for quality NFL products, Spalding made the leap over to Horween. It paid off: Horween stands strong as not only the maker of all NFL and NBA game balls, but also as the only tanning company surviving in all of Chicago.

Horween’s process of making that special NBA-certified leather is no easy bag of chips. It involves inspecting, baiting, pickling, tanning, re-tanning “in tack” (i.e.: adding essential oils to make the leather stickier and easier to grip), drying, and grading all the horsehide leather. At the end of its long journey, the leather is taken to a special press, where dots are embossed to create each individual pebble. Both basketballs and footballs get the exact same pebbling embossment (with the exception of Wilson-brand products, which has its own special mold).

While the extra points of contact provided by those tack-covered pebbles do wonders for a modern basketball, those speckles can’t completely prevent the ball slipping from your hands. When you play basketball, you sweat, and when you sweat, things get slippery, which can cause your high-quality basketball to slip straight out of your hands.

No shame! Even Michael Jordan got sweaty palms. While nothing can 100% insure that you keep your mighty grip on the ball at all times, a little human intervention can better prepare your ball for game play. If you have a fairly new ball, consider breaking it in by playing a few practice games ahead of time. The contact of the ball with a surface, like, say, concrete (a surface ripe with friction-friendly pebbles), creates a more rugged terrain on your ball. The more pebbled your leather, the better the traction. The better the traction, the easier the ball is to handle. The easier the ball is to handle, the more likely you are to win that game of HORSE with your neighbor (depending who your neighbor is).

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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