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Blame America, not Europe, for the flop
by Dennis Hans / May 15, 2006

Miami coach Pat Riley, upset over the increasing number of offensive fouls called against his center, Shaquille O’Neal, lashed out at foreigners for bringing the flop to the NBA. “In this league,” he said, “it's become an art form, brought, by the way, by the Europeans.”

Alas, not only does Riley sound like the stereotypical “ugly American” with that comment, he’s dead wrong. The flop is as American as Kentucky bluegrass. Maybe Vlade Divac brought a European flair to the stunt when he joined the Lakers Pat Riley’s Lakers in 1989, but U.S.-born hoopsters had already been taking dives for decades.

In his 1998 book revealingly titled Values of the Game (p. 149), former senator and Knick Bill Bradley sings the praises of Frank Ramsey, the great Celtic sixth man of the 1950s (and, like Riley, a U. of Kentucky grad): He “could draw an offensive foul by placing his hand behind his opponent’s back (the hand away from the referee) and pulling him forward so that it would appear that the opponent had intentionally run into him. On defensive rebounds, if his opponent had nudged him under the basket so he couldn’t get to the ball, he would simply fling up his arms and fall forward, looking for all the world like a man who had been pushed. Often the referee agreed.”

There are two schools of thought on flopping. The Bradley school which I would brand ethically challenged sees such tactics as legitimate and integral to the so-called “game within the game.” There’s the game you play against the opposing team and a simultaneous cat-and-mouse contest with the refs. Painting misleading or even
grotesquely false pictures for the refs to get the whistles to go your way is the heart of this second game.

The Olajuwon-Cowens school to which I proudly belong sees basketball as a single game. It doesn’t see a “game within the game,” though it does see some bad apples who cheat. This school is baffled by and disgusted with an NBA hierarchy whose long silence on flopping implicitly condones and encourages cheating.

Back in his playing days, Dave Cowens published a letter to the editor in the Boston Globe denouncing the growing scourge of flopping as bad for the game. But he was more than a man of words. In one game, Mike
Newlin
took a dive on Cowens, who got called for a foul he didn’t commit. Enraged, Cowens ran down and flattened Newlin, then yelled at the ref, “Now that's a foul!”

In 1997, the much-admired Hakeem Olajuwon spoke for many when he said of Karl Malone, “The MVP of the league must be legitimate. He can’t be flopping, looking for cheap fouls. It isn’t right. It cheapens the game and it cheapens him.” (St. Petersburg Times, May 21, 1997)

Olajuwon and Cowen have it exactly right, which is why I named a school after them.

The first flopper I remember from my youth is Jerry Sloan. Long before he became the Mailman’s coach and, one presumes, flopping mentor, he was an All-Star and defensive ace for the Chicago Bulls. When the show “Vintage NBA” profiled Sloan, his coach, Dick Motta, recalled fondly how Sloan would flop all over the court. The accompanying footage confirmed that at least one big guard had mastered the phony stagger long before Manu Ginobili arrived from a European league.

Sloan was the hero of the first player I despised Doug Collins. A “Vintage NBA” show on John Lucas focused on a last-minute Collins flop that cost the Houston Rockets a shot at the 1977 Eastern Conference crown and, according to the show, led to Lucas’s eventual trade to Golden State, where, cut off from his friends and support base, he developed serious problems with alcohol and cocaine that would plague him for a decade. While I’m inclined to cut Collins some slack for Lucas’s substance abuse it’s possible that flop wasn’t entirely to blame what led me to despise him was his antics against my favorite player George “the Iceman” Gervin. Collins didn’t try to guard him; he instead looked for opportunities to take a dive. It was his mission to get Ice into foul trouble and off the court. I recall one play where Collins launched himself into an anticipatory pratfall the replay showed that Gervin hadn’t come within a foot of the Philly faker. Collins was a Hall-of-Fame talent with Hall-of-Shame values.

As a color commentator on NBC and TNT, Collins repeatedly has sung the praises of guys who flop and flail from incidental or non-existent contact, such as his new TNT colleague, the buffoonish Reggie Miller.

Even Collins didn’t flop as much as Ron Lee of the Suns, the first player to try to turn every single possession into real or imaginary block/charge collisions. Where did Lee learn this “style” of defense? At the University of Oregon under Dick Harter, who would later be a favorite assistant coach of Riley’s.

I was a Washington Bullets fan at that time, and one of their reserves had played for Harter. Greg Ballard was a big burly forward, yet he could convincingly collapse if a fly landed on his shoulder.

When David Stern became commissioner in 1984, Bill Laimbeer was the premiere flopper, which was one reason he was the most hated player in the league. A few seasons later he had an understudy, Dennis Rodman, and their flopping and cheap shots helped put the Detroit Pistons over the top as they won NBA crowns in 1989 and 1990.

The Chicago Tribune’s Sam Smith, in his 1992 book The Jordan Rules (p. 18), observed that Michael Jordan “didn’t care much for Rodman’s play. ‘He’s a flopper,’ Jordan would say disdainfully. ‘He just falls down
and tries to get the calls.’”

Years later, when Rodman joined the Chicago Bulls, Jordan evinced no problem with Rodman’s flopping, which helped the Bulls win three consecutive NBA titles, the first of which came against Seattle. The Sonics were coached by George Karl, who in his 1997 book This Game’s the Best! (p. 20), described Rodman as a “cute cheater” who won Game Two of the 1996 Finals all by himself “just by flopping every time our Frank Brickowski came near him. . . . If Dennis Rodman did this stuff on the playgrounds, you’d punch him.”

Karl now coaches at Denver, where he periodically rails against flopping and comes off as a member of the Olajuwon-Cowens school. But he seems to have swallowed his tongue since acquiring notorious flopper (and
testicles squeezer) Reggie Evans.

Karl and Jordan matriculated at the University of North Carolina. Might they have pursued the same degree Situational Ethics?

Returning to the present, the occasion for Riley’s comments was Shaq’s statement that he’s facing a proud member of the “flopternity” in Jason Collins of the Nets. Shaq says that Collins likes to bang in the paint, but then he’ll flop when Shaq bangs back. Shaq is right about Collins, though the Net also draws his share of legit, non-flopping charges from the likes of Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal, who tend to telegraph their bulldozing “moves” a week in advance.

That bulldozing is one reason Shaq has zero credibility as a critic of flopping, for he has benefited immensely from playing much of his career when refs, for whatever reason, have allowed him to break the rule against dislodging — an allowance not accorded center greats of yesteryear. Another reason to shed no tears for Shaq is that he didn’t object to the flops of teammates Derek Fisher and Robert Horry when their antics were contributing to three Laker championships.

While amnesiac Riley blames Europe for the flop, the reality is that Fisher, Horry, Evans, Collins, Rodman, Ramsey, Lee, Laimbeer, Newlin, Miller and Sloan were born and raised in the USA and taught the game by
non-European coaches. Given that U.S. coaches tout their countless teaching clinics in far-flung lands as instrumental in globalizing the American-born game, perhaps we should see foreign NBA floppers as a form
of “blowback”: Donnie Nelson and other hoop missionaries bring the fundamentals of flopping to Lithuanians, Serbs and Argentinians, who then give it their own twist before gravitating to the NBA.

It’s a depressing thought for subscribers to the Olajuwon-Cowens school, but for the Bradley school it’s all good fodder, perhaps, for a sappy “NBA Cares” spot, showing how our hoop missionaries teach youngsters the
world over how to con a ref.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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