Learning To Love The Flop

With basketball’s unprecedented global appeal, is it time for Americans — and the NBA — to embrace the tactic?

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
- President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove

The NBA season has been over for a few weeks, its thousands of games and the sprawling narratives now well settled into our memories. And even with the league’s draft, free agency and an active trade market keeping the buzz going, the sport has been splitting time this summer in the American consciousness with another event — the World Cup — with which it shares it shares common ground in more ways than one.

Aside from basketball’s increasingly global appeal (a continuing active process for which you can thank the David Stern and the members of the 1992 Dream Team), the Association is increasingly impacted by its players pleading for fouls from overwhelmed officials. In “the beautiful game,” these appeals are expected — heck, they’re practically a form of pseudo-artistry. For basketball fans, however, the defensive tactic has been ignominiously and near-universally derided, and “flopping” has been declared to have no place in their game.

The language itself, as it usually does, holds meaning here. As Americans take their extended lunches to watch contests between countries most residents couldn’t likely identify on a map, they learn about “matches,” “the pitch,” and “tackles.” In soccer, feigning or exaggerating contact to draw a foul is called “diving.” There’s a subtle disparity between that word and “flopping,” but it makes all the difference in how Americans perceive the act.

A “dive” is an action. It means to search for something, to reach actively toward the attainment of — in soccer’s case, an undeserved foul or, more profitably, a penalty kick. While diving certainly has its detractors, few people think that the act tarnishes the world’s most popular sport. Some international fans seem to revel in the act, at times even letting out a loud whistle — more sly wink than jeer — during the most obvious infractions.

Meanwhile, “flop” is associated with failure, like a big-budget movie (also uniquely American) that doesn’t live up to its promise. Fans view a player’s strange contortions — often defying the laws of physics — as some sort of deficiency; proof that the over-emphasizing “flopper” can’t play the game the right way.

MJ didn’t always need to create extra space to get a shot off against Bryon Russell, but if he needed to, he did what he had to. (AP)

There’s some truth to that, as the flop is currently against NBA rules, but breaking rules isn’t the problem and never has been. One of the advantages of memory is how subjective it is; when we favor something, it ceases to be negative as time goes on. Breaking the rules becomes bending them — when it’s to our advantage to do so.

From Michael Jordan’s oft-disputed offensive foul/last shot as a member of the Chicago Bulls, to the wicked crossovers of Allen Iverson that often relied on illegally palming the ball, fans are notorious for seeing what they want to when it’s convenient for them. An older player who does the little things to annoy an opponent — even when those acts bend the rules a little — is said to have “veteran savvy.” Physical play, especially from Caucasian players, is said to be “gritty” rather than “dirty,” although that depends on with which fanbase said player is aligned.

Take the recently concluded NBA Finals, for example, to see how much allegiance affects perception. During one particular moment in Game 2, Dwyane Wade was standing with the ball in his hands as he was guarded by Manu Ginobili in a spot where the referees couldn’t clearly see what Ginobili’s active hands were doing. The Spurs guard swiped at the ball, and missed both it and Wade, but Miami’s “savvy veteran” flung his head backwards, suggesting Ginobili had been too active in his defensive effort. A ref blew the whistle and assessed a foul — his third of the first half — on Ginobili. The game was, perhaps related, Miami’s only win of the series.

History shows that both Wade and Ginobili are both amongst the league’s most notorious offenders. Ask most Dallas Mavericks fans and they’ll happily tell you that Miami’s championship in 2006 should have been rewarded with an Oscar™ instead of the Larry O’Brien trophy. Wade’s 97 free throw attempts in six games are still an NBA Finals record.

Manu Ginobili has brought loads of international skill to the NBA, along with a prediliction for flopping. (AP)

But Ginobili is no slouch in the flopping department, either. A search for “Ginobili + flop” on YouTube compiles an extensive list of his most grievous efforts. Yet following the foul call in Game 2, many rushed to the Argentinian’s defense, claiming that he was treated unjustly by officials that are often seen as incompetent, at best. While most fans are knowledgeable enough to recognize Ginobili’s past indiscretions, he’s older and part of a well-coached unit that has become somewhat, and unfairly, synonymous with team-first play. Again, the perceived right way. Wade, conversely, was part of the Heat, seen as a collection of mercenaries that has enjoyed a mostly villainous reputation for four years.

When both players wear black hats, root against the guy with the bigger one.

This perceptual transformation is even more surprising given Ginobili’s role as the poster boy for flopping and the un-Americanization of basketball. An unfortunate side-effect of Stern’s globalizing the sport was the influx of non-U.S. players at a time when the NBA was undergoing a transformation to a more superstar-driven league that, consequently, seemed to award its brightest stars with unwarranted free throws. As Jordan, Charles Barkley, Iverson and others sought rewards by way of the “charity stripe,” more rosters were being filled with players like Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis and later Dirk Nowitzki and Ginobili, too. These foreign players, perhaps with U.S. fans’ limited understanding of soccer and “diving,” were unjustly lumped together, a product of right/wrong time.

Still, the blinders (maybe more like obscurers) of subjectivity are at work here. The reality, one that is harder to swallow, is flopping had been part of the NBA for decades before non-U.S. players held an increasingly prevalent role. In this piece by Grantland’s Netw3rk, we see the history of flopping artfully throughout the early years of the NBA. One particular player, Frank Ramsey, was a part of the 1960s Boston Celtics and went so far as to give a detailed explanation to Sports Illustrated on how he sold a dubious foul call.

That version of the Celtics, like the current Spurs, long-embodied those concepts of team play and are often viewed through the blurry lens of nostalgia. Yet, their history of flopping hasn’t marred those memories in the slightest.

As the writer points out at the conclusion of the Grantland article, “history is written by the victors, yo.”

Where does that leave us? It seems that the inherent fault in criticizing the flop is how much of that criticism is tied to our allegiances. Fans can still marvel at a made jump shot, an aggressive dunk or a well-timed block, even if those plays are made by an opposing player. If a secondary reasoning behind our distrust of floppers is how we have incorrectly assumed its originators to be un-American, can we make the transition — as soccer fans have — to casual acceptance, and perhaps even appreciation?

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove, sets an appropriate precedent here. The film is a hilarious satire that mocks the fears of an apocalypse brought on by nuclear war (a very real and prevalent feeling at the time of the film’s release) while providing a glimpse at the bumbling inefficiency that often affects government. If fans see the flop as the final collapse of integrity — basketball Armageddon — perhaps they’d best be served by the calm realization that it has been present for years and, somehow, the sport and society as we know it have not met their grizzly end. And while the NBA’s front office imposes meaningless fine after fine to deter players from flopping, they should recognize how ineffective their limited measures have become when the flop is so widely embraced, even by America’s youth.

Basketball should learn to accept the flop, as I now have, and recognize it for the intrinsic part of today’s game that it has become. Let the statisticians of the world begin a new journey, where a player’s “floppage-rate” is as important as their ability to knock down a shot from long distance. Perhaps the Frank Ramsey Memorial Award will be given out annually to whoever masters this art of deception.

And even if this treatise is simply satire, as Kubrick’s movie was, it’s still worth consideration. After all, the flop has been here for decades and will likely be here for years to come. If you can’t fight in the War Room, you might as well just learn how to fall with grace — and with a wry, knowing smile.