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Long before Deflategate, Shaq let the air out of basketballs

Shaquille O’Neal


As Tom Brady faces a four-game suspension for Deflategate, Shaquille O’Neal says deflating balls is no big deal.

O’Neal says that during his NBA career, he would regularly let air out of basketballs, and he sees nothing wrong with it.

“Sometimes, in the games during all my championship runs, if a ball was too hard, I let air out,” O’Neal said on his podcast, via ESPN. “I’d have a needle. A friend of mine would have a needle and I would get the game ball. . . . I needed that extra grip, but I wasn’t doing that for cheating purposes. I just needed the extra grip for my hands so I could palm it, a la Michael Jordan, the way he used to palm it.”

O’Neal doesn’t consider what he did to be cheating.

“Because, first of all, I’m not aware of any letter of the law that says, you can’t let air out of the ball,” O’Neal said. “I’m not aware of that. Second of all, it’s all about my [comfort level]. A lot of times, if the balls have too much air in them, they’re too bouncy. I didn’t want them to be bouncy. I needed that grip.”

ESPN also passes along old quotes from Phil Jackson, who won two NBA titles as a player on the Knicks, six as the coach of the Bulls and five as the coach of the Lakers. Jackson said in 1986 that he and his teammates on the Knicks regularly deflated basketballs.

“What we used to do was deflate the ball,” Jackson said. “We were a short team with our big guys like Willis [Reed], our center, only about 6-8 and Jerry Lucas also 6-8, [Dave] DeBusschere, 6-6. So what we had to rely on was boxing out and hoping the rebound didn’t go long. To help ensure that, we’d try to take some air out of the ball. You see, on the ball it says something like ‘inflate to 7 to 9 pounds.’ We’d all carry pins and take the air out to deaden the ball. It also helped our offense because we were a team that liked to pass the ball without dribbling it, so it didn’t matter how much air was in the ball. It also kept other teams from running on us because when they’d dribble the ball, it wouldn’t come up so fast.”

Later, as coach of the Bulls, Jackson reportedly caught other teams altering the air pressure in basketballs in an effort to get an edge against Michael Jordan.

Despite all that, an NBA spokesman said there’s no record of the NBA ever disciplining anyone for deflating basketballs. In the NBA, deflating balls is viewed as no big deal. In the NFL, it’s become a very big deal.