Buying Guide: Basketball

What you’ll need to dominate the court

The sport has changed in countless ways since James Naismith first nailed a peach basket to the wall of his gymnasium in 1891. But despite more than a century of evolution from the bounce pass to the alley-oop, basketball has stayed wonderfully simple. Indeed, anyone with a ball and a pair of sneakers can probably find a game within a few blocks of his home.

For such a straightforward game, finding the right gear can feel awfully complex. First, some basketball star is always trying to sell you an overpriced shoe. And today, both pros and amateurs sport an array of accoutrements — shin braces, arm compression sleeves, mouth guards — that guys like Bird, Jabbar and Dr. J didn’t seem to need.

So what do you really need? Whether you want to play pickup games or join an organized men’s league, these basic tools will let you shine on the court — and help you stay in one piece.

Don’t buy an expensive official game ball. Your favorite pro team uses an indoor-only leather ball that would never hold up on asphalt. Go with a composite ball (size 7) designed for indoor and outdoor use, and you can start a game in any venue.
Basketball shoes
Cutting, running, demands a lot from your feet. When it comes time to buy a pair of court sneakers, you want a three-quarter shoe (not a high- or low-top) that has a firm heel, good ankle stability and a thick midsole to absorb shock. And you don’t have to spend $150 to get one.
High tube socks from the '80s may not be returning anytime soon (and that’s probably a good thing), but you’ll need a few pairs of performance socks that at least extend higher than your shoe collar. Opt for synthetic materials that can handle sweat better than cotton.
Shirt and shorts
Sure, you can wear your lucky Celtics 1986 championship shirt, but that cotton relic will be clinging to you after just a few trips up the court. The prepared player hits the hardwood in a moisture-resistant shirt and mesh shorts. (Letting them hang down to your mid-calves is optional.)
Mouth guard
Mouth guard
You might be playing basketball, but an elbow or post-hit in a pickup game can give you a hockey smile. Wear a mouth guard to protect your teeth — and even more importantly, to lessen the risk of concussion.
Safety Pads
Knee and elbow pads
Your goal should be to protect nagging injuries — and not pick up any new ones. Every baller would be smart to wear knee and elbow pads. (Don’t worry; they look fairly sleek these days.) As for nagging injuries, see below.
Knee Brace
Ankle brace
If you have a pre-existing ankle problem, wear an ankle brace to prevent another sprain or strain. Many pros wear one as a precaution. Don’t wait for that weak ankle to roll out and set you writhing.
Water Bottle
Water bottle
It’s easy to get dehydrated when you’re sweating bullets, so don’t forget to keep plenty of H2O handy (in addition to your favorite energy drink). Having two bottles is smart. On hot days, you’ll need enough for a few head showers.
Mini Pump
Mini pump
For at-home inflation, you’ll be fine with a small, handheld piston pump found in any sporting-goods store. For courtside firm-ups, however, toss one of these newer miniature pumps in your bag to save space and weight.
Gym bag
The best bags can comfortably fit a change of clothes, sneakers (preferably in a separate compartment), water bottles, towel, other personal items and, of course, a regulation basketball.
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