Applying the NBA's integrity clause to flopping
ESPN's Henry Abbott, in his astute column "No time to be timid on flopping," notes that a rarely cited clause in the NBA rulebook could be applied to floppers:
"To be unsportsmanlike is to act in a manner unbecoming to the image of professional basketball," it reads, in a section discussing unsportsmanlike play. "It consists of acts of deceit, disrespect of officials and profanity. The penalty for such action is a technical foul. Repeated acts shall result in expulsion from the game and a minimum fine of $1000."I agree with Henry: flopping is indeed a form of deceit, aimed at the very people — the refs — responsible for maintaining the integrity of the game on the floor. The first basketball essay I got into cyberprint 12 years ago concerned this very issue and cited that very same clause (see below).
"Deceit" is the issue in flopping, and the very first example in this list of unsportsmanlike conduct. The penalty is a technical. That's a start.
I've felt this way since the early 1970s, when I watched flopping spread like wildfire from hallowed Dean Smith's UNC Tar Heels to other schools in the ACC. In the NBA at that time it was mostly a Chicago Bulls thing (Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier in particular), but that would soon change.
My initial flopping piece debuted May 15, 2000 in Herb Boyd's online-only publication The Black World Today. (Alas, TBWT and the link to my essay have been defunct for quite a while.) It ran two days later as a "Fan's View" column in the online edition of The Sporting News; that link, too, is dead. Here's what I wrote:
NBA must restore integrity of game by punishing “floppers”
May 15, 2000
by Dennis Hans
“I fouled out with three or four offensive fouls and played [just] 27 minutes in one of the biggest games of my life, and that doesn’t feel good.”
All-star Chris Webber has every right to be upset. On Easter Sunday his Sacramento Kings lost the opener of their five-game playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he had to sit and watch for long stretches because he was whistled for two fouls that he appeared not to commit.
Webber was the victim of an ugly, unethical and most effective strategy: Winning through flopping. That is, get the other team’s best player into foul trouble — and off the court — by having your players fall down every time he brushes against them, exploiting the fact that officials have a split second to make the call, hardly enough time to peer into the flopper’s soul.
Just as Hollywood stuntmen and professional wrestlers stagger from punches that never connect, many basketball players have perfected the technique of careening from the slightest nudge. But what is legitimate in entertainment is cheating in sports. Floppers are cheaters, and the sooner the NBA faces up to the fact and does something about it, the better.
Robert Horry, the Laker most responsible for Webber’s phantom fouls, is a late bloomer as floppers go. He spent his first four NBA seasons in Houston, winning two NBA titles on teams led by the great Hakeem Olajuwon, perhaps the most respected player in the game.
After a 1997 playoff loss to Utah, Olajuwon had harsh words for 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 was a role model for his fellow Rockets. Horry, once relocated to phony Tinseltown, may have found a new role model in 1998-99 Laker teammate Dennis Rodman. Doc Rivers, a former NBA player and TV analyst who now coaches the Orlando Magic, hailed Rodman in 1998 as “a great actor.” Others have been less kind.
Chicago sportswriter Sam Smith, in his 1992 book The Jordan Rules (p. 18), observes 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 team win three consecutive titles. Yes, the same hoop legend who can’t keep his promise to investigate the conditions under which his Nike shoes are made appears to practice “situational ethics.”)
In his 1997 book This Game’s the Best! (p. 20), former Seattle coach George Karl describes Rodman as a “cute cheater” who won Game Two [sic: it was Game One] of the 1996 Chicago-Seattle championship series 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.”
Alas, what some see so clearly as cheating, others see as creativity or clever “gamesmanship,” to cite the term NBC’s Bob Costas has employed to praise Rodman. Costas’s broadcast partner, Doug Collins, is himself a retired flopper who’d hit the deck 10 times a game [hyperbole on my part; even Collins wasn’t that bad] in an effort to get the incomparable George “Iceman” Gervin in foul trouble.
Another euphemism for flopping comes from Mr. Integrity of Campaign 2000, Bill Bradley. In his 1998 book revealingly titled Values of the Game (p. 149), Bradley sings the praises of former Celtic great Frank Ramsey, who “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.”
The Ramsey chapter’s title? “Imagination.”
For Bradley, Costas, Collins and all the other ethically challenged commentators, here is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate hoop acting:
The legit stuff is aimed at the opponent: Kobe Bryant loping along for a second or two, lulling the defender into a false sense of security, then turning on the jets; Mookie Blaylock nonchalantly turning his back, then pouncing on a lazy inbounds pass; Jason Williams looking left and dishing right; Tim Hardaway setting up some sap for the crossover. In every case, the player’s body language or facial expression aims to fool the hapless foe, not the official. It’s acting, and it’s beautiful.
Illegitimate acting aims to deceive the official, the judge on the court, the upholder of the integrity of the game.
The league itself seems to understand. Basic Principle C of the NBA rulebook states: “To be unsportsmanlike is to act in a manner unbecoming to the image of professional basketball. It consists of deceit, disrespect of officials and profanity.”
Floppers are guilty of two out of three. They deserve a punishment that fits such a serious transgression, not a reward.