When the U.S. Girls' and Women's Basketball Rules Committee decided last summer that women in the collegiate ranks would unilaterally adopt a smaller basketball this season, many members of the Women's Basketball Committee objected.
The women's game, it was reasoned, had improved in recent years because coaches had come to expect more from the players, and players had come to expect more from themselves. Full-court presses, complex defenses with man-to-man fronts and zone backs, a half-court rule and quick transition offenses had been successfully employed and found to improve the game.
Adopting a smaller ball -- by one inch in circumference -- was akin to lowering the basket. Coaches argued it was a "slap in the face to all the women who had played so brilliantly" with the regular-sized ball.
The decision had been made with the best of intentions. "We were trying to find a way to help players do more things with the basketball," said Betty Jaynes, executive director of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "We wanted to try to adjust the ball to meet the specifications of a woman's hand, so she would have more control and could do more things with it."
Now in the middle of the college basketball season, many players and coaches have put aside their philosophical misgivings. Many like the ball, while others have found new, practical problems with it.
Maryland Coach Chris Weller admits to having delivered a "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech in which she aired her doubts when the issue was broached at the National Coaches' Association meeting. With resignation, Weller has put those considerations aside and her problems now concern how the ball plays on the court.
"I know it was supposed to improve ball handling and passing and therefore the speed of the game, but I haven't found that to be the case," Weller said. "I've found there are more turnovers now and the game just looks a little sloppier to me.
"I think it's a difficult ball to catch. We're used to the bigger one, and although you can throw the passes harder, catching is a much more difficult skill . . . And now that we can throw it harder, it even compounds the difficulty of catching the thing.
"It throws off a very long rebound, which makes blocking out even more difficult. The taller girls can't use their height, and quickness is of far greater importance than it already was.
"The ball is too light for its size (weighing between 18 and 20 ounces compared to the larger ball's 22 ounces)," Weller said. "The rebound is ridiculous. It's tough to rebound that ball. It really comes off, way back out to the foul line."
Old Dominion Coach Marianne Stanley agrees with much of Weller's assessment. "My observation is that it has significantly reduced shooting percentages close to the basket," Stanley said. "Shooting percentages are down and I'm not coming from a position of sour grapes. We're (unbeaten, 16-0)."
Although it has increased her players' shooting range, Stanley believes the lighter, livelier ball is more apt to bound off the rim or bounce in and out. "It's frustrating for coaches, players and spectators," she said. "It doesn't enhance public acceptance of the game when people are missing easy shots."
"It takes away credibility," said Maryland point guard Julie Silverberg. "We were making a lot of advances. It's like saying we can't handle the bigger ball. I like it playing like a men's game. I do think it's negative. Now it's women's and men's basketball. I can't go out on a playground with a smaller ball. Sure, the guys will like it for ego reasons because they can dunk and palm it, but it's separating us."
Kelly Ballentine, George Washington's shooting guard, also noticed the separation when she returned home recently and went to work with the players against whom she had sharpened her shooting skills. She found she had to become reaccustomed to the larger ball.
But Ballentine likes the small ball. "As far as shooting goes, it has enhanced my shot by three feet," she said. "I don't think its demeaning. Take Mike Brown (GW's 6-10 center) and size him up to Kerry Winter (a GW forward) or myself. His hands are four inches bigger."
Like Weller and Stanley, GW's women's coach, Denise Fiore, admits that the pace and quickness of the women's game is not noticeably different and that her team's shooting percentage has not gone up. However, Fiore liked the idea from the start.
"In most other sports where you have a strength or size factor, allowances have been made. In the shot put, hurdles and in volleyball, some allowance is made," Fiore said. "I only wish it would go down to younger levels, that's where it's really needed. Those kids need it to make a good chest pass or a baseball pass."
Unlike the college ranks, the Rules Committee has left the decision to use the small ball in girls' high school basketball up to individual states. Maryland, Virginia and District high schools still play with the bigger ball. West Virginia is the only state in the immediate area that has changed balls.
George Mason's first-year coach, Jim Lewis, believes that girls' high school programs could benefit if they adopted the ball. "The overall quality of play -- the ball handling, passing and shooting -- would all be served," Lewis said.
Maryland's Carolin Dehn-Duhr can dunk either ball. "I prefer the regular-size ball," Dehn-Duhr said. "As for dunking, the ball doesn't matter. I can dunk either one. Dunking is in the jumping."
Dehn-Duhr says the ball has helped increase her teammates' shooting range, but it has not increased their percentages.
Presently, Maryland is shooting about 39 percent from the field, something that has Weller more perturbed than the adoption of the smaller ball. "It might not make any difference right now if we played with a block," she said.