When it comes to playing conditions, the NBA's dirty little secret is dirt.
The pregame fireworks set off by the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers during the Eastern Conference final scatter soot and powder onto the court. Thousands of spectators rumbling around an arena shake dust from the rafters. The players track grime in from the locker room. No matter how many times an NBA team sweeps or polishes its floors, dirt finds a way to the playing surface.
More than just a housekeeping problem, dust is a hazard to the players when it builds up on the soles of their sneakers and causes them to lose traction. "If you got slick [shoe] bottoms, you can't grip and that means you can't plant, stay with your man or fly," said Chris Wilcox, a member of the Los Angeles Clippers and a former Maryland Terrapin.
Jorge Julian, an engineer and recreation league player, found an answer. His invention -- a 28x29-inch pad with 50 disposable adhesive strips mounted to it -- has been purchased by 27 of the 29 NBA teams, he said.
Look carefully at players just before they check into this year's playoff games and they will appear to be cleaning their feet on a doormat. It's really Julian's creation, which he calls the Slipp-Nott.
The players step onto a Slipp-Nott and dirt clings to the adhesive surface without leaving any sticky substance on the players' shoes. When the top sheet becomes soiled it can be stripped away to expose a clean one.
Before Slipp-Nott, it was common to see athletes on the court licking their fingers and then wiping their soles clean with their hands, or spitting on to the court and rinsing their sneakers in the puddle. Both methods were considered unsanitary as well as unsightly.
"Spitting on your shoes works," said Rory O'Neil, the starting center for the University of Southern California basketball team. "The [Slipp-Nott] is just more convenient and keeps your hands and mouth cleaner."
Since developing the product 16 years ago, Julian has sold more than 30,000 mats and replacement adhesive sheets to the NBA, scores of colleges and high schools.
Julian literally tripped over the idea. In 1987, he was speaking with a co-worker when he accidentally stepped on an adhesive surface that the company he then worked for, which he declined to name, was developing for non-athletic use. When Julian stepped off the surface and onto a tile floor he heard the sharp squeak familiar to anyone who has ever darted around a gym. When a clean pair of sneakers grips a clean hardwood surface there is a distinctive chirping sound that has become synonymous with basketball.
"I heard it and felt the traction and I said to myself: 'Hey, I got to do this for basketball,' " said Julian, who lives in Los Angeles.
Julian and his brother designed a prototype Slipp-Nott and took it to Long Beach State University to test whether basketball coaches might be interested in such a product.
Seth Greenberg, men's basketball coach at Virginia Tech, was an assistant coach with the 49ers the day Julian carried his mat into the gym. Greenberg asked one of his players to make a few sharp turns on the gym surface. Then he asked him to do again, after he had stepped onto the Slipp-Nott.
"There was construction nearby so there was a lot of dust," Greenberg said last week. "You got to remember that changing speed and direction are the hardest things to do in basketball. The kid, after he makes the cuts, gets excited and says 'Coach, I could really feel myself pushing off.' "
Julian made his first sale.
The Slipp-Nott comes in a variety of sizes and ranges in price between $80 and $140. With basketball's popularity growing internationally, Julian is looking into marketing his product overseas.
"This was truly a concept before its time," Greenberg said. "Back when nobody else had them I'd see a kid from the other team stepping on our mat and I'd almost want to tell them to get their own. Now I see them everywhere."