Flopping in the NBA: A History of (Non)violence

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s a tale that has grown in the telling. It was February 1976, and the Boston Celtics were hosting the Houston Rockets at the grand old Boston Garden. At some point during the game, Houston guard Mike Newlin slid into the path of Dave Cowens as the Celtics legend was driving strong toward the hoop. Cowens brushed by Newlin, who then acted as if he’d been blasted by a shotgun, flying backward and drawing the charge. Cowens pleaded his case to the referee, but, then as today, the ref wasn’t having it.

When Cowens finally turned from the ref, what did he see? The cowardly figure of one Mike Newlin, dribbling down the court while presumably holding an Oscar statue in his other hand. So Cowens did what real, honest-to-goodness M-E-N did back in the bloody days of yore. He Jadeveon Clowney–ed the villain, turned to the referee, and bellowed, “NOW THAT’S A FUCKING FOUL!” Flagrant foul, Cowens ejected; a blow for justice that would echo throughout time had been struck. Celtics coach Tommy Heinsohn argued against Cowens’s ejection so strenuously that he was then ejected. Green-blooded talismanic architect Red Auerbach, waiting in the locker room, greeted Cowens with a hearty “It’s about time!” One imagines rose petals falling like confetti and knights on steeds blowing triumphal horns.

That flag, planted in the battle against flops, would be the high point of our increasingly morally decayed NBA. The ’80s would bring more flopping, from Bill Laimbeer, from Worm Rodman. Then came the ’90s and 2000s and those dastardly Euros, with their strange consonant-choked names and douchey five-day beard stubble. Now look at us. A league beset by heads jerked backward in mock agony, flailing arms, and cries of simulated pain. If only we could return to the good old days, when men were men. The days of Red, Cowens, Heinsohn, and Russell.

Well, there’s a problem with this narrative. Those old Celtics warriors’ stance on flopping is absolutely rife with self-serving hypocrisy.

From 1954 to 1964, shooting guard Frank Ramsey played an integral role in seven Celtics championship teams, averaging 13.4 points and 5.5 rebounds in 24 minutes a game. He played with Russell, Cousy, Heinsohn, KC … all the greats. His coach was Auerbach. He also, quite literally, wrote the book on flopping. In the December 9, 1963, issue of Sports Illustrated, Ramsey, with Frank Deford, penned an article titled “Smart Moves By A Master Of Deception.” All the dark sorcery is in there, described in professorial detail, complete with “Teach Yourself Karate”–style illustrations.

Ramsey, on drawing fouls on a driving opponent (a.k.a., what Newlin did to Cowens):

Drawing fouls chiefly requires the ability to provide good, heartwarming drama and to direct it to the right audience. I never forget where the referees are when I go into an act. The most reliable eye-catcher is still the pratfall. Particularly on defense, when everything else fails, I fall down. Luckily, I happen to be type-cast for the part, because I have a peculiar running style—back on my heels, with my knees locked. It makes falling very easy and natural-looking for me.

I am beaten here. My man has a clear drive past me to the basket, unless I step in front of him—and that would be a definite blocking foul on me.

Instead, I shift my weight to get as much of my body as I can in front of him without moving my feet. If the official is anywhere behind me, it will appear as if I am in front of my man.

Then, at the first contact, I fall down—as if my man had charged right into me. With any luck, the foul I deserve will be called on the other guy.

On guarding players with the ball:

When I am guarding the player with the ball and contact occurs, I forget pride. I don’t hold my position, even if I am sure I am right. But if I forget and do stand my ground, I stand perfectly rigid. Even flinching counts against me.

WRONG: I ought to get this foul (at right). But I should not have moved at all, because that makes it seem as if the defensive player is responsible.

RIGHT: Falling is always safest. Notice that I collapse at the least bit of contact. I react before the offensive man does, so that the blame appears to be his.

On drawing a foul while shooting, kind of a proto-rip move, with extra points for snitching on Dolph Schayes:

This ploy probably was originated by Dolph Schayes. Certainly he always did it better than anyone else. It utilizes reverse psychology on the referee. The man with the ball starts in good position but then creates the foul deliberately by bumping before he shoots. It happens so fast, though, that the officials believe the defensive man must have fouled — on the theory that nobody would be looking for trouble if he is set for a shot. It should be done very subtly, though, so that it does not embarrass an official. I never try to make an official look bad. If I must talk to one, I try to be polite and make him feel I’m on his side. This is an emotional game and the hotheads don’t get the breaks.

I have the hall [sic] and I’m moving into better position to put up a shot. Suddenly, however, I change my course and bang my shoulder into my guard. I don’t try to bull my way in. That would be an obvious charge. I just make contact, then step back quickly.

Then I shoot. Not only do the officials usually call a foul on the defensive man, but the contact helps me brace myself for a good shot.

It goes on and on. Ramsey describes how to draw bogus whistles when offensive rebounding (scream and fall down); when defensive rebounding (act like you got elbowed); when shooting near the basket (hear the whistle; throw the ball up underhand). A little more than a decade later, on that heroic February night in Boston Garden, Ramsey’s old teammate, and now coach of the Celtics, Tommy Heinsohn, would rail against the pussified antics of Newlin and his ilk:

Every time someone goes near them, they fall down. I got tired of guys falling down all over the place. Mike Newlin and Calvin Murphy are forever falling down. They should complain. They’re sweeping the floor and not getting union wages. These guys are great players, they shouldn’t go flying into the stands when someone touches them. It’s a trend in basketball and it stinks.

And here’s Auerbach, in full-on hate-the-player mode during one of his late-’70s “Red on Roundball” halftime spots, busting rhetorical caps at those who would flop, and issuing this apocalyptic warning: “Now remember, coaches today — in high school, college, and pro — are TEACHING the players how to fall. THIS IS UNREAL!”

Um, I LEARNED IT BY WATCHING YOU.

There’s a saying, usually attributed to Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors.” We never think of the great Celtics teams of the ’50s and ’60s as, literally, creating modern flopping, because they won so goddamn much. They did what they were trained to do: compete for any edge, over every inch of the very fabric of the game.

We think of flopping as something popularized by those Europeans, Vlade Divac and the like, right?

Far from being some newish malady, the roots of flopping go back to the earliest days of the game itself. From a meeting of East Coast basketball movers and shakers in November of 19-freaking-28, to discuss changes to rule interpretations designed to legislate a menacing recent development called “the dribble”:

If a dribbler charges into an opponent, or makes personal contact with an opponent, without an apparent effort to avoid such contact, a personal foul shall be called on the dribbler. If, despite the dribbler’s effort to avoid contact, personal contact ensues, either player, or both, may be guilty; but the greater responsibility is on the dribbler if he tries to dribble by an opponent who is in his path.

How soon after this language was implemented — language giving referees new powers to legislate the game — do you think players were trying to draw fouls on each other? Five minutes? From a glowing 1949 tribute to Nat “Mr. Basketball” Holman, who played for the Original Celtics (no connection to the actual Celtics) until 1930, and coached the City College of New York to both the NIT and NCAA titles in the same year (1950):

Few players were as adept at drawing fouls as Nat. He was the master, particularly in the closing stages of a fray where an extra point was precious. And he had the iron nerve to ignore the taunts and sink the free throws.

Before the fabulous Horse Haggerty became a Holman teammate on the Celtics, their paths crossed in a game. The deft Nat faked a foul which was charged against the innocent — for a change — Haggerty. “Don’t ever do that to me again,” roared the huge Horse. But Nat did. A few moments later Holman was missing, out cold at the other end of the floor, where the indignant man mountain had left him.

Gee, that sounds familiar. Also, when did we stop calling dudes “Horse”?

By 1942, some West Coast colleges decided to experiment with moving the referees off the floor and into a crow’s nest behind the basket. The thinking was that if referees were farther from the court, they would be less susceptible to deceptive techniques. “I found from the start I couldn’t get away with some of the tricks I used to use, so I quit trying,” said one Bob Mulder, of Southern Oregon.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t catch on, but it’s indicative of how early on people around the game have been trying, and failing, to curtail flopping.

Some of the most revered players in NBA history were floppers. The rest were their teammates. Jerry Sloan was such a notorious flopper that an unnamed coach threatened to fine his players if they didn’t step on him when he fell down. The notion that this problem is somehow worse now than it was in the ’50s, when there were only eight teams, or the ’60s, when there were 14, is ludicrous. The problem isn’t worse; our ability to see it in high-def, slow-motion replay is better.

So what to do? It isn’t going anywhere, that’s for sure, because it’s sports — an absurdist adventure by definition, where we debate while wearing masks of rationality, all the while hoping dudes in matching uniforms beat those other dudes in differently colored uniforms. Pacers fans serenade LeBron James with derisive flopper chants; meanwhile, Lance Stephenson is acting as if he’s been elbowed in the face. Pacers fans, when confronted with George Hill or Roy Hibbert selling a call, will say, “Oh, but it’s not as blatant as Dwyane Wade falling out of bounds.” That’s probably just the sort of thing that Auerbach and Heinsohn told themselves.

Flopping is to basketball as farting is to being alive; it’s annoying, ridiculous, and sometimes embarrassing reality, but a reality nonetheless. If something has been part of the game since the dribble, it’s probably more apt to refer to it as a tradition rather than a scourge.

The current system of fines certainly isn’t up to the task of slowing the flop, and in my opinion, that’s by design. It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis. If a player thinks drawing a flop foul on an opposing player can win his team a title, or even a playoff game, what is the dollar amount the league would need to hang over the player’s head to make him not do it? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m guessing it’s not $5,000 (LeBron will make $17.5 million this year). Or even $30,000 (for the fourth offense). Just a theory, but I think David Stern, et al, understand flopping is an expression of competitiveness, and simply want to create the appearance that they are doing something about it rather than actually doing something about it. If they really wanted to stamp out the flop, sanctions would start with suspensions. But when you’re a multibillion-dollar business that sells its players doing the spectacular on the court, the last thing you want to do is take them off of it.

Listen, I openly admit to hating it when a player draws a flop foul on the team I root for. Drives me nuts. But if a player on the team I root for had a chance to draw a flop call that could win a championship? Man … history is written by the victors, yo.

Filed Under: Boston Celtics, NBA