IT’S MID-APRIL, less than 24 hours before the Golden State Warriors open their postseason march toward a third straight NBA Finals appearance, and Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser is taking his post for what he calls “the easiest job in the world.” For fun in the summertime, Fraser works with kids — sons of friends, playground dreamers — on their game, and he often smirks when chasing down long rebounds after shots carom off the rim. It couldn’t be more different after practices at the Warriors’ downtown Oakland facility, where Fraser can point to a small patch of real estate below the rim. “I don’t move out of the restricted area,” he says, “when those guys are shooting.” By those guys, he means Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, both of whom, on this day, are lined up in the right corner, ready to take aim.
The Warriors have called this facility home since 1997, and it boasts three full-length courts, a basket bookending each one, plus two more affixed to a far wall. But it’s the goal nearest to the weight room where Curry, out of habit, has long made it rain while Fraser rebounds, moving little more than a statue. And this season, in part because Durant also works with Fraser, the 6-foot-9 flamethrower has joined those two on Curry’s bucket. For the record: fellow Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson launches bombs on the other goal opposite Curry and Durant.
On any given day, Curry might drain about 250 shots in all, Fraser says. Of those, the two-time NBA MVP always attempts at least 100 3-pointers — and of those, he often makes a percentage anywhere from the mid-to-high 80s to, on occasion, well into the 90s. Though Durant, who won four out of five league scoring titles from 2009 to 2014, doesn’t launch as many long-range bombs as Curry, he still drains some 200 shots on an average day, and about 50 3-pointers.
With Fraser near the bucket, Durant and Curry today take turns making the net dance to and fro, one after the other, Fraser rifling the ball back to them. Curry from the right wing: Snap goes the net. Durant at the same spot: Swish. Curry moves a few feet to his left, toward the top of the key: Snap. It continues for 20 minutes, a symphony of swishes, surgical in their precision, militaristic in their efficiency.
Nearby, a swarm of media surrounds Warriors head coach Steve Kerr; soon after, Kerr will retire to a nearby chair facing the court and train his blue eyes on that very net, which is now, finally, still, with Durant and Curry having clocked out, their damage done. Its original bone-white complexion has faded into shades of brown, gray and burnt orange. Take a whiff, and you’ll pick up on a strong scent of leather and sweat, with just a hint of dirt. Of its dozen polyester cords, looping through the iron rim, many near the front and side are frayed to a handful of intact fibers, and the rear two cords — right where a dead-eye swish would connect — are on life support, barely hanging on.
“We need to change that net out,” Kerr says.
What Kerr and the Warriors might not know: Spalding, which has made nets since 2006 and has provided the NBA’s official on-court net since 2009, owns what it considers to be a “one-of-a-kind machine” at its Bowling Green, Kentucky, facility, and this machine (which they refuse to describe in detail, lest their competitors build something similar) can cycle six to eight balls, one after the other, through a net at different angles and at 20 miles per hour to test for durability. Spalding runs these tests from time to time, just to ensure its product is up to snuff, but never to the point of destruction. “We’ve run the NBA net through 10,000 cycles on our machine and it still looks perfectly fine,” says Paul Sullivan, senior vice president of Spalding. “It’s just a little bit dirty.”
Meanwhile, over in Oakland, on the goal where Durant and Curry drill endless jumpers, they have to change the net out about every few weeks, estimates Eric Housen, the Warriors’ longtime equipment manager. “This season,” Fraser adds, “it’s gotten worn down more.”
The Warriors are a uniquely constructed net-killing machine.
WHAT THE CRACK OF THE BAT is to baseball, the swish of the net is to basketball — among the game’s more signature images and inarguably its most signature sound. But a swish, in fact, is the sound of decay, the destruction of fibers, and in Oakland — home of the greatest collection of shooting talent ever assembled on one roster — that sound is louder and more frequent than usual.
So let us take a moment to pause in silence for this latest hapless net, may it soon rest in shreds. Like its brethren, it was born in a single China factory. First, the rope is machine-made — a polyester outer sleeve (slippery but durable) covering polyester strands (like fishing line) that’s surrounded by polyester filler (like pillow fluff). Once the machine has its say, a worker takes that rope and stitches together a product that Spalding sells for $12.99. Nets are manufactured year-round and, from China, they journey to Spalding’s facility in Jefferson, Iowa, where they ship official on-court gear to all 30 NBA teams.
League rules stipulate that nets at arenas must be changed by every seventh home game, at a minimum, and that worn nets should be replaced immediately, though some arenas do so often — at Oracle Arena, for instance, the nets are changed every game. When they reach practice facilities tend to survive a bit longer — unless they’re hung on that goal nearest the weight room in Oakland.
SUCH IS HOW LIFE BEGINS for NBA nets. But how did life begin for the very first net?
Here’s the part of the story you already know: In December of 1891, a Canadian physical education instructor named James Naismith invented a game, the first iteration of which was played soon after at a YMCA gym in Springfield, Massachusetts, with 18 players, a soccer ball and two peach baskets. (And no, to answer the obvious question, the bottoms of those peach baskets were not cut out.)
Fast forward a half century to the late 1960s in a small town in upstate New York called Floyd, and the part of the story you don’t know. A boy in the second grade is watching basketball on the living room television. “You know,” his mom says, turning to him, “your great-grandfather helped invent that game.” The boy is stunned. There’s a hoop in his driveway. But this fact, he never knew.
His mother pulls out a first-edition book, with a worn olive green cover, entitled “I Grew Up with Basketball,” by Frank J. Basloe. Basloe grew up in Herkimer, New York, and came to know a local YMCA director named Lambert Will. And Will, it just so happens, was this boy’s great-grandfather.
The book recounts how Will received a pamphlet that Naismith circulated to nearby YMCA instructors about a new indoor game aimed at keeping students busy during New England winters. Will was intrigued, Basloe wrote, but thought it needed a few tweaks, like passing the ball rather than rolling it. Another tweak involved the peach basket, which required, after every made shot, someone to ascend a ladder and fetch the ball.
In time, a Herkimer blacksmith named George “Chunky” Volk fashioned metal rods into a hoop. “But Will still felt something was lacking,” Basloe wrote. “He thought the bare, sturdy iron hoop had no appeal. He asked for suggestions on how to dress it up. Many were offered … [but] Will himself came up with the best idea. He thought they should hang a netting of some kind around the hoop to give it the appearance of a peach basket.”
Will asked his mother, who knitted two drapes together. “She made a fine mesh netting,” Basloe wrote. “The innovation was a masterpiece.”
That boy grew up to become Vermont state senator Philip Baruth, who today calls his great-, great-grandmother “the Betsy Ross of basketball.” He argues that the innovation came at a crucial time, when the game was still in its infancy; not only did a net provide a visual cue for a made basket, the game no longer needed to be paused after every basket. “I can’t see,” Baruth says, “how the game would’ve survived without it.”
But here’s where things get complicated.
About two decades ago, Will’s descendants sought to have his contributions to the game recognized by the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. They donated photos of Will and the Herkimer YMCA team, and on Nov. 17, 1994, an exhibit was unveiled. Although Will died in the mid-1960s, his sons Philip and Lambert Jr. — both in their 90s — attended, as did 30 members of the Will family, according to a 1995 Herkimer Telegram article. A spotlight shone down on the Herkimer team photograph on a pedestal in a glass case in the center of the third floor “Basketball History” room. Photos of Will were displayed.
Less than a decade later, Baruth says, a family member visited the Hall and found nothing tied to Herkimer or Lambert Will. The family was confused. They’d received no warning. To this day, they still have received neither an explanation, nor has their memorabilia been returned.
When contacted by ESPN, Matt Zeysing, a historian and curator at the Hall, offered a one-sentence reply: “The Herkimer and Basloe story was debunked.” Zeysing and the Hall did not return several emails and calls requesting any facts, evidence or published stories supporting that stance.
“No one in my family has ever tried to downplay Naismith’s role in inventing and naming the game,” says Baruth, who keeps the book his mother showed him so long ago in his office at the University of Vermont, where he has been a professor of English for 25 years next year. “We’ve just tried to say, Will was a pioneer with a lot of the aspects of the game. So I think that’s something that should be captured in history and not disappeared.” If the Hall won’t display their family’s memorabilia, he says they at least want it back.
A tangled net, indeed. Research further the origin of basketball nets and you might find an account that Naismith hired a local carpenter to forge a net from chicken wire. Or you might find one that says that in 1893 the Narragansett Machine Company in Providence, Rhode Island, began manufacturing iron baskets with a net to catch the ball. Or you might find any of the dozens of related patents dating back to 1921, the first of which appears to have been filed by Richard Jackson Jr. of San Francisco, who described his “Basket-ball goal indicator” as such: “My invention relates to improvements in goal indicators particularly adapted for use in the game of basket ball, and its primary object is to provide a simple, practical and efficient appliance to indicate either visually or audibly, the fact that a ball has passed through the basket.”
Or you might find Diane Fountain, formerly Diane Will, who still lives in upstate New York and says only, “I just wish more people knew about my grandfather.” She can remember Lambert telling stories about being in on the ground floor of of the game, and she always imagined that one day she’d contact Magic Johnson and other basketball legends and share those stories, because she’s sure they never knew, just like her son didn’t until that day all those years ago. When she told him about their family’s ties, he was so excited. He told all his friends, but they called him a liar. Naismith, they said, invented basketball, and everyone knew that.
JOHN FONTANELLA IS THE KIND OF GUY who says that “probably the eureka moment of my life” came when — in the mid-2000s and after many trial-and-error experiments — he calculated the precise launch angle (50.8 degrees) for someone of his height (5-foot-11) to shoot from the free-throw line (15 feet from the hoop) in order to give him the “softest” shot — one in which the ball reaches the hoop at the slowest possible speed, enough to carry over the rim but also enough to hit it and have a chance of rolling in — what’s commonly known as “shooter’s roll.”
Fontanella loves basketball. And in the mid-1960s, as a guard at Westminster College, a liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania, he torched the nets, as the saying goes, setting the school record for points in a game (51). He still owns three of the top-five scoring games in school history. “I could shoot,” he says. “That’s about all I could do.” But Fontanella also loves physics, a subject he taught at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, for 37 years.
In 2006, Fontanella married those passions in a book, The Physics of Basketball, and to him one of the key elements of elite shooting is, in fact, the net. “It’s really how the basketball interacts with the net that gives the shooter feedback,” Fontanella says. “Anybody who’s ever shot at the playground or wherever with a basket that has no net realizes that it is very, very informative. The net gives the shooter the feedback that he needs — the feedback to improve.”
Put this notion to Kobe Bryant, who made 11,719 field goals (fifth in NBA history) and 8,378 free throws (third in NBA history) during his 20-year career, and the Lakers legend is all in. As the ball leaves a shooter’s fingertips, he says, the shooter is left with a certain sensation, often about whether that shot is on target or awry. “But the net,” Bryant contends, “it either reinforces or confirms how the ball felt when it left your hand, or it changes your perspective on how you felt the ball felt when it left your hand.” He calls it “The Answer.”
The Answer can help a shooter determine whether that shot had too much arc or not enough. It can offer a surge of confidence, foreshadowing a hot streak. Bryant says when he felt an early shot was just a bit off the mark but he was able to “lean it back” in with his follow-through, “it made me feel as if The Force was strong that night.”
Fraser knows all their shots backward and forward, having seen thousands of attempts. He can tell you that Thompson shoots with less arc than Curry, has a compact shooting motion with less margin for error but that when he has the right spin on the ball, it snaps the net just right. He can tell you that when Curry is on, his arc is far more pronounced, and it screams through the net. If something is off even slightly with their mechanics, he’ll notice it right away, but often the players do too and self-correct before Fraser has to say anything.
But there’s something about the swish, something almost magical. “When you hit that pure one, nothing like it,” Kerr says. Rob McClanaghan, who has trained some of the NBA’s biggest stars, including Durant, Curry, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, challenges players at the conclusion of workouts to swish back-to-back free throws. “It doesn’t take long with the guys I work with,” he says with a laugh. He demands the swishes because it ups the ante but also because it leaves them in a good mental state, better than a normal make.
On a clean make, the net snaps — “shwoop,” Thompson says. “It’s pure. That’s when you know you’re doing something right.” In Dallas’ American Airlines Center that shwoop is especially loud; there’s a microphone near the basket that amplifies it. “It’s loud and the whole arena can hear it,” he says. “I can’t believe they put it on [there] because it’s a great mark for a shooter when you hear that a few times. It’s great for entertainment, but it’s great as a shooter. You can hear when you’re in the zone.”
“I’m telling you — 99.9 percent of all shooters get a thrill if you hear that net scream,” says Chris Matthews, a shooting coach who has worked with several NBA players — he prefers projects, i.e. Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — and whose Instagram account (@lethalshooter) boasts 429,000 followers. Matthews was a shooting guard at St. Bonaventure University, where he set a single-season record with 101 made 3-pointers in 2009-10, and can talk about shooting all day. “Myself, I get my rhythm from the net,” he says. “When I hear the net make a certain noise, I keep that arc.”
And how would he describe that noise? Says Matthews: “It’s like the first time tasting ice cream.”
THERE ARE LEGENDS, such as former Seattle Supersonic star forward Shawn Kemp dunking so hard on a playground rim with a chain link net that sparks flew off. There are traditions, such as teams cutting down the nets after winning NCAA championships, a custom that harkens back to Indiana high School basketball in the 1920s.
And there are preferences.
Bryant is nostalgic, preferring nets of yesteryear, specifically the 1980s Showtime Lakers at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, California. The nets were firmer, he says. Crisper. On tape, he’d watch a ball hit the back heel of the rim, bounce forward into the net, and stay there a moment, forming an indentation. “You wouldn’t see a swish,” he says. “You would just hear the sound of the balling through the net.” And he loved that sound. “That’s the s— I grew up listening to,” he says. But as time went on, Bryant noticed how nets became softer and softer. Spalding once made nets with nylon, an industry standard — hence the colloquial, “Nothing but nylon” — but players kept hanging on them to stretch, particularly during the national anthem not long before tipoff, and it would stretch the nets out, which didn’t look as good, so Spalding made a switch. Now, they’re 100 percent polyester with polypropylene in the tips for extra strength.
Kerr likewise enjoys a throwback net, the kind from his high school days — a little longer, a little looser, so that when he hit that perfect swish, the net would wrap up around the side of the rim. “I thought that looked really cool,” he says. But those days are over. Spalding’s NBA nets feature what’s called an “anti-whip” design, i.e. their tips contain polypropylene for extra strength so they don’t follow that exact motion that Kerr so adores.
Still, nets are not merely innocent bystanders hanging from the rim. Utilized properly, they can offer strategic advantages. Consider the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s. “I’m sure it helped their fast break,” Bryant says, “because the ball goes through the net very, very quickly and you take it out and you go.”
Conversely, in a 2000 interview with Esquire, Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach said, “There are ways to gain an edge. I’ll give you an example: If you’re playing against a fast-breaking team, you put new nets up so the ball won’t go through quick. It hangs up.”
Kerr knows that ploy all too well from his days as a UCLA ball boy when John Wooden’s Bruins dominated the college ranks. The Bruins ran a 2-2-1 full-court press defense, but at Pauley Pavilion in Westwood, they also used “really waxy, thick nets,” Kerr says. A made shot would linger just a moment before passing through — long enough to help allow the Bruins to set up their press defense. Anything for an edge.
THREE DAYS AFTER Kerr proclaimed that it was time to retire yet another net, the Warriors reconvene for practice. It’s a Tuesday, and they hold a 1-0 lead over the Portland Trail Blazers in their opening-round playoff series. As media members again gather around Kerr, Fraser mozies over to the restrictive area while Curry matriculates to his usual spot in the right corner. When Curry starts rolling, it’s a sight to behold. Midway through a practice last season, he made a staggering 77 3-pointers in a row. “It was a normal day,” Fraser says, but then Curry hit 10 in a row from one spot, then the next, and the next, and the next, all the way around the arc before working his way back around a second time, and then Fraser began realizing that something truly special was afoot.
“I started feeling pressure with my passing,” he says, “because I didn’t want to hit him with a bad pass.”
And so it is that today, after practice, after a few swishes more have poured in, Curry pauses on the right wing, looks at the basket and asks aloud to no one in particular, “Brand new net?” And indeed it is: crisp, bone-white, intact and installed that very morning by Housen, who dipped into the stash of 100 nets that he orders in bulk at the start of the season and can switch out in a couple minutes flat, because he has done this a time or two. But Curry’s question is rhetorical, and his pause doesn’t last. He is death, destroyer of nets, and here is fresh meat. He fires another moonbeam, one of the 85 out of 100 he will make this session, each one tearing his latest victim apart.