The Art of the Flop
By Patrick Hruby
If the NBA wants to spruce up All-Star Weekend -- and judging by sagging ratings, a little sprucing is overdue -- two moves are in order.
Add a flop-off.
Operatic, halfway-to-Valhalla howls. Exaggerated, banana-peel pratfalls. Contrived, yet compelling competition. With the Oscars upon us, it's time to give basketball's master thespians their due. Year after disappointing year, the dunk contest promises an "American Idol"-esque exhibition; make the switch, and a flop contest would deliver.
Honestly, what would you rather watch? Nate Robinson, needing 57 attempts to throw down a slam? Or a flop artiste such as Vlade Divac, taking a glancing blow from Robinson before pinwheeling into the second row a la Lindsey Kildow on the slopes of San Sicario?
I think you know the answer.
Of course, some purists are bound to object. Floppin' is cheatin', after all, a way for the sneaky to sucker the skilled. It's also phony, as bogus as joinbode.com. And it might be the surest sign yet that we are becoming a Soccer Nation, in thrall to cough-and-they'll-collapse strikers such as MLS' Carlos Ruiz, flapping and logrolling our way to basketball Gomorrah.
Mention flopping to Atlanta guard Ty Lue and he wrinkles his nose, disgusted, like Pauline Kael at a Pauly Shore film festival.
"I hate that, man," Lue says. "Hate it. I would never want to do that. If you're able to beat somebody to the spot on the floor, just go ahead and cut them off. Play good defense."
Lue has a point. But he's missing the bigger picture. As a fan, I enjoy good defense. I adore a good flop. While few would confuse Dennis Rodman with Sir Anthony Hopkins -- or even baller-***-"Kazzam!"-star Shaquille O'Neal -- there's no denying that faking a fall to get a call makes for great theater, basketball's answer to … well, if not Shakespeare, then at least Moe, Larry and Curly.
Indeed, like the lowbrow Stooges and lower-brow "Dancing With the Stars," flopping has two saving graces: it's both wildly entertaining (man fall down -- funny!) and a whole lot harder than it looks.
"Flopping is an art," says former All-Star Dominique Wilkins. "You have to go home and practice it in the mirror. I don't fault guys for it. Especially against great big guys. It's a smart move. For an older veteran, it can be the only advantage you have."
Speaking of advantages, flopping has a big one over dunking: The NBA's fall guys already are accustomed to performing before discerning judges -- that is, game officials -- on a nightly basis.
For a flop-off, then, why not replace the refs with a three-man panel of retired experts -- say, Divac, Reggie Miller and Bill Laimbeer? Just picture the possibilities:
Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell stands before the judges …
MILLER: (grinning) I like your style. Simple physics tells me that Earl Boykins would never be able to send you flying with a slight push from his forearm. Yet somehow, you convinced me. You're on to the next round.
DIVAC: (puffing a cigarette) Next time, more head snap. I want to see whiplash! (More puffing). Otherwise, way to take … (snickering) the charge.
LAIMBEER: (smirking) That was dreadful. No scream. No wince. And you got up way too quickly. Remember: You've just been shot (shaking head). I've seen better stuff from Shane Battier. And that's when he was in college.
"Some guys have it and some guys don't," Washington Wizards center Brendan Haywood says of flopping. "Some guys are believable, some guys aren't. I think it's just a gift."
More than a gift, flopping is a craft. As such, it can be scored accordingly. What to look for? Try the following:
A good dive appears spontaneous, unscripted. Then again, so does most reality TV. Former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson reportedly taught flopping in practice. Chris Whitney, an accomplished fall guy who played 12 seasons in the pros, says he learned his tricks from Doc Rivers.
FIVE FOR FLOPPING
• Bill Laimbeer: The Godfather. A master at appearing hurt … then sprinting back down the floor (the picture of perfect health).
• Reggie Miller: With legs kicks and splayed arms, hoops alchemist spun offensive fouls into defensive whistles.
• Dennis Rodman: The flop as taunt: clever defender used positioning and flamboyance to get calls and get inside opponents' heads.
• Vlade Divac: Took plenty of hard shots from Shaq. Made all of 'em look a whole lost worse. No coincidence his wife is an actress.
• Manu Ginobili: Best of the new-school Fosburys boosted by energetic, unpredictable movements, floppy 'do.
• Also receiving votes (in a random, unscientific poll): Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Allen Iverson, Raja Bell, Jarron Collins, Chris Whitney, Shane Battier (in college), Tony Parker, Bryon Russell (recently cut), Michael Curry.
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In the manner of a Hollywood stuntman gearing up to jump a dynamite-laden passenger bus over a golden retriever and a hole in the Golden Gate bridge -- c'mon, what are the real-life odds? -- the master flopper leaves nothing to chance.
"Certain guys have made a science of it," says Indiana coach Rick Carlisle. "The same way that guys in the 1980s like Moses Malone made a science of offensive rebounding."
The cardinal rules? Limit your pratfalls to aggressive opponents. Never let on that you're faking. When possible, take an early charge. Don't bother flopping at the end of a close game.
Above all, study film. Really.
"You pick up on little things," says former player Tree Rollins. "For example, when Juwan Howard posts up, he always throws his left arm out. So a flopper knows that whenever that arm comes out, it's time to go down."
Degree of Difficulty
Going down isn't easy. Bell might be an accomplished flopper, but he's also a hard-nosed defender. According to unofficial statistics at 82games.com, the Suns guard is one of the top charge-takers in the NBA -- which means he absorbs plenty of real shoulders and elbows to go with the phantom ones.
While playing with the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State guard Derek Fisher was a pesky charge-taker/reverse-tucker in the mold of Bell. Lue, a former Lakers teammate, recalls Fisher coming to practice with sore hips and a smarting tailbone.
Floppers suffer for their art. Outside of Chris Andersen, can anyone involved with the dunk contest say the same?
"If you're known as a flopper all the time, you're not going to get any calls," says Los Angeles Clippers guard Sam Cassell. "You have to stand in and take some hard shots, too. You earn it."
A first-rate flop has many elements: positioning, body control, sliding along the floor just so. Still, it's the personal touches that stand out. Dallas guard Jason Terry admiringly calls Laker guard Kobe Bryant a "verbal flopper," able to coax a call out of a single well-timed scream. Michael Jordan once likened Miller's trademark habit of initiating hand and arm contact to "chicken fighting with a woman."
A few years back, I asked Denver guard DerMarr Johnson to demonstrate Miller's technique. Linking elbows with an imaginary defender, he pulled back with a yell, his arms spinning like windmills.
"You make the first attack," says Whitney. "And when your guy is trying to dislodge himself, you fall down. The ref sees it, and he thinks you're the one getting fouled."
Milwaukee center Ervin Johnson says Divac favored a similar move.
"He'll grab your shirt, flop back," Johnson says, shaking his head in frustration. "Grab your arm, fall back and hit the ground. He stands out like a sore thumb. He should get an Oscar for best actor. Beat out Jack Nicholson."
Nicholson starred in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Floppers such as Divac drive opposing players cuckoo.
"You try to get guys off balance," Cassell says. "You try to get into their minds. That's to your advantage."
Is it ever. Even the best dunk counts for only two points, same as a layup or jump shot. A well-timed flop, on the other hand, can be worth so much more. It's demoralizing. Distracting. On offense, it makes power players less aggressive; on defense, it makes shot blockers think twice.
During Game 1 of last year's NBA Finals, Detroit center Ben Wallace earned a technical foul after being called for a block on what he thought was a flop by San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili. The exasperated Pistons were outscored 18-4 over the next five minutes and went on to lose the game.
Vlade Divac of the Lakers is one of the league's ultimate floppers. Were his falls really that bad?
"It's the worst thing when you're working so hard, and the next thing you know a guy is on his back," Wilkins says. "But you never try to let it **** you off to a point where it affects your game. Guys like Shaq get so mad. That just plays into a flopper's hands."
With a scoring system based on the above categories in place, an All-Star flop contest would be easy to institute. The only roadblock? Getting players to participate. Never mind the potential for injury: The first rule of Flop Club is pure Chuck Palahniuk. Don't talk about Flop Club. Sports Illustrated once asked Divac about flopping. His response was incredulous: Flopping? I don't call it flopping. I call it letting the ref know there is contact.
Two years ago -- a decade after his retirement -- Laimbeer sounded a similar note. Informed that both Wilkins and Patrick Ewing described him as diving's Dark Prince, the former Bad Boy wrinkled his brow, lifted an eyebrow and assumed the puzzled, who-me? countenance of an Iranian nuclear scientist.
"I disagree," he said. "No comment. Why are you coming at me?"
Sigh. Fans of the long-defunct North American Soccer League once rewarded particularly flamboyant dives by holding up cards reading "9.9, 9.8, 9.9." Give floppers the same sort of recognition -- the same sort of respect -- and perhaps they would be less reticent. In the meantime, I'll be watching this weekend's Academy Awards, crossing my fingers for an NBA equivalent. Cinephiles can keep "Crash" and "Brokeback Mountain"; give me the theatrical flourish of Ginobili, shamelessly faking a broken back after crashing Wallace.
Hey, if spurious man-on-man contact is good enough to net Heath Ledger and Jake what's-his-name Oscar nominations, it's good enough for All-Star Weekend.
"[Flopping is] part of the game," Rollins says. "The officials sometimes know you're flopping. But it looks so good, they'll give you the call."
Manu , I wish I could quit you.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.