Growing up I often marveled in my gym class as my grade school teacher would wheel out the ball-cart filled with 20 plus wonderfully, round, orange, bouncing basketballs all of the same types of basketball, same size, look and feel as well. Even at that young age I loved basketball. What made it even cooler was that one of the students who had a bit of OCD would take the time to make sure all the Spalding logos were facing outwards. It’s a small thing but marked in my memory as an exciting moment in my day 🙂
Although these balls were all the same and in every right were created equal, you may find it hard to believe that all basketballs are actually not created equal. There are different balls for different ages, play surfaces and levels of professionalism.
To learn more about the size of basketball you should be using, check out this article on basketball sizes.
Used in school grounds around the world these basketballs are the most popular type due to their versatility and durability. They can be used on any surface in almost any weather and still maintain their shape and structure. Rubber basketballs are ideal for playing outdoors where you would not want a leather ball. They are also the least expensive type of basketball to purchase and can easily be found for $10 or less.
Although they boast many benefits they are not the ideal choice for someone looking for a really good feeling ball. A ball that optimizes for weight and texture. They are often of cheap design and can be difficult to inflate to the optimized feel.
This style of ball is great for kids, youth or even adults just learning the sport or for use in the driveway but if your at all serious about playing move on to something better.
- Who: Beginner players
- Where: Indoor / Outdoor courts
- Surface Type: Any (Great for concrete or asphalt)
- Price: $
Composite is really the best choice for playing basketball outdoors. It has many of the features associated with a rubber ball and therefore provides a better feel approaching that of a leather ball. Most semi-serious players use composite basketballs both in training and during recreational games as it has a zero break-in time; where as leather requires a warm up period.
These balls are bit more expensive to produce than the rubber basketballs but they are still far cheaper than the leather balls.
For an all around good feel, some versatility when it comes to play surfaces and the right price point, a composite ball would be the right choice.
- Who: Intermediate/Advanced players
- Where: Indoor / Outdoor courts
- Surface Type: Any
- Price: $$
Leather balls are the choice of professionals. The NBA, WNBA, NCAA and some high schools use leather balls for practice and game play. The feel of a well worked in leather ball is second to none.
There is one downside though if your planning on running out to buy one right this minute. Leather balls have a break in period. A time needed to break the ball in to the point where it’s at its optimal feel. According
Luckily, according to Spaldings senior vice president Paul Sullivan, “There’s only one way to break in a leather basketball, and that is by playing with it,”. So even though the ball isn’t at its peak feel when you buy it, it will get better and feel better with time. Now Spalding has a machine that speeds this process up before sending their basketballs out to the NBA. However it’s still takes another two months of practice use before the balls are game ready. 
Some other limitations to leather basketballs are that they are strictly for indoor use. They should NOT be used outdoors. The leather can tear and small pebbles can become embedded in the surface of the ball. They also have a tendency to pick up dust even on a clean indoor court making the ball a bit slippery so giving it a quick wipe with a towel at the end of each game will keep the grip strong and the ball clean.
Some say you can wash a leather ball with mild soap and warm water but if you do this make sure to towel-dry the ball immediately after. Water left on a leather ball can damage it.
Leather is the most expensive type of basketball out of the three and can approach the $150.00 mark for a top of the line, official NBA game ball.
- Who: Advanced players
- Where: Indoor courts only
- Surface Type: Wood or other indoor court materials
- Price: $$$
If your in the market for a new basketball and are just learning or playing with the family for fun, my recommendation would be a simple, cheap rubber basketball.
If your playing with friends for fun but like to play hard or you spend a good amount of time practicing and playing outdoors, opt for the composite ball. You will be more than happy with it and it will maintain its grip for a few years without any problem.
If your playing indoors all the time and want a really good feel and a ball that reacts well to your moves, leather is perfect, just give it some time to break in.
And if your playing in any sort of indoor, competitive environment, make the investment and go with the leather as well. It will give you years of enjoyment.