When people talk about flopping in the NBA, they often talk about it like something that was invented by European players. Phil Jackson, for instance, joked that flopping fines should be expressed in Euros, not dollars.
Is that kosher? Is it OK to assign a bad part of basketball to a cultural group? Isn't that painting with far too broad a brush? Mustn't there be people out there who cringe at such talk?
One of the highlihgts of my Finals roadtrip so far has been getting to know Carlos Morales and Alvaro Martin of ESPN Deportes. Super guys. Martin is the play-by-play announcer for basketball and Morales -- who has coached extensively, including the Puerto Rican national team -- does the color commentary.
Morales, it turns out, has written a column on that very point, which was published in Spanish. Here it is in English:
A clear case of prejudice and ignorance
It is pertinent to intervene when prejudice rears its head, no matter the source or the intended or unintended target.
Lately, there has been a lot of discussion in the media about flopping, and it has often been associated unfairly with foreign players. Of course, flopping has been part of the game since its inception.
One of Red Auerbach's instructional videos from the 1970s features Auerbach with Washington Bullets players Mike Riordan, Clem Haskins, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, joined by then Celtics player Paul Silas and referee Mendy Rudolph. The Hall of Fame coach rails against a series of tricks that both Auerbach and Rudolph consider attempts by players to deceive the refs.
Auerbach points out that coaches were teaching their players how to flop, which according to Auerbach and Rudolph should not be allowed in the game. The exhibition pointed out how players launch themselves to the floor after incidental contact, or get in the way of a leaping shooter, in a late attempt to "sell" an offensive foul. Sound familiar? The coaches and players accused of flopping by Auerbach and Rudolph were 100% American.
For instance, in recent days many in the media have identified Anderson Varejo, Manu Ginóbili, and Andrés Nocioni as noteworthy floppers. Lakers coach Phil Jackson has been quoted, for instance by Ivan Carter of the Washington Post, saying "I think that if you fine them in euros, you'd find out that it would really end quickly."
Now a Hall of Fame coach shows a stunning lack of honesty and an equally alarming ignorance. Can you imagine the outrage at an NBA coach singling out African-American players for a pattern of behavior or performance? That coach would quickly become a pariah in the NBA, and justifiably so. Can you picture an NBA coach identifying traits about US-born American white players that put them at an advantage or disadvantage on the court? Luckily most of the NBA is past that stage of paint-by-numbers blanket stereotyping, but Jackson and others apparently need a refresher.
This are just examples of some of the labels that certain elements of the US basketball establishment prefer to place on the talented players formed professionally overseas. At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, when the NBA began to recruit important skilled players abroad (usually to be role players or to sit at the end of the bench; rarely to have a starring role in a team) these athletes were identified as being "finesse players" who were "somewhat mechanical" with "limited athletic skills."
Fast forward to the present, where international players who arrive in the NBA have as much talent and produce for their teams at or above the level of their colleagues formed in the US basketball system. Some journalists decide, going along with the prejudiced and ignorant mainstream, to avoid pointing out international players' contributions, and to continue applying these ignorant labels, for instance that international players are the masters of deception, cheating and flopping in the NBA.
It is a lot easier to label Ginóbili as a flopper, than to recognize his total devotion to winning, and that, whether you like it or not, he is one of the Top 10 to 15 players in the NBA. Xenophobes feel more at home (pun intended) whining about Nocioni exaggerating the effect of fouls than to point out he is one of the most versatile, hard-nosed and hardened players in the league, capable of contributing on offense, defense and rebounding for his team, whether they make him play as a small forward of as a power forward, where he gives up inches and pounds to opponents.
It seems to be a lot more fun for American journalists and NBA analysts to accuse Varejo of flopping than to point out his guts to place himself in harm's way, leading the league in offensive fouls drawn per minute played, or his great nose for offensive rebounds and his boundless energy, which he spills all over the floor and inspires his teammates.
Not that the aforementioned international players do not flop -- they do and make the most out of what up until the end of this season is a tactic with great rewards and no cost. Flopping, however, does not define them as players or individuals, nor are international players the sole practitioners of the arts of deception. In these playoffs, we have seen outstanding American players such as Chris Paul, LeBron James, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Mike Bibby, Bruce Bowen, Derek Fisher, Andre Miller, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Richard Hamilton and Paul Pierce, among others, use flopping or exaggerate contact with the intent to deceive -- acts that have been part of the NBA for decades.
Have we forgotten Bill Laimbeer or Dennis Rodman? Reggie Miller passed on his floppy ways to Richard Hamilton. Even the venerable Pat Riley, at the end of his playing days with the Lakers, used to flop like a wet noodle.
Why not pick on LeBron James as a practitioner of flopping, instead of his teammate Varejo? Is it because attaching the label of 'flopper' is inconsistent with NBA marketing royalty? NBA experts, journalists and fans endlessly highlight Allen Iverson's guts, heart and total devotion to the game, yet no word is ever printed about how he earns two to three free throw attempts per game through sheer fooling of the referees in exaggerating contact or flopping. Is it because labeling A.I. a 'flopper' goes against the image of a daring, daredevil guard who will sacrifice his body nightly for his team?
In his Post article, Carter notes the $25,000 fine for verbally abusing officials levied against the Detroit Pistons' Rasheed Wallace. Wallace complained about referees falling for Celtics flops all over the court and the game in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Pistons were penalized. One thought: how many Celtics were international players? The answer: not one.
In Game Four of the Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and San Antonio, Derek Fisher fouled Brent Barry with less than two seconds left, contact that was not charged by the three officials. San Antonio was deprived of a chance to make two free throws and force overtime. TNT's studio analysts, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Reggie Miller, agreed that a foul had been committed, but that it was not charged because Barry failed to "sell" it enough to the referees.
Miller insisted that Barry had to maximize contact with Fisher and its effect, shooting after contact as part of one motion (something Miller mastered in his career). Isn't this a form of deception designed to fool referees into calling a foul that should have been charged regardless?
Curiously, during Game 6 between Celtics and Pistons, Paul Pierce imitated Miller and sought contact with a player that had bit on a fake and was airborne, in order to secure
three free throws or a made three-point shot (which he did make) and an additional foul shot. Bennett Salvatore did not take the hook, figuring instead that Pierce had been the one provoking contact. Pierce was charged with an offensive foul and took the three points made on the basket. Pierce is one of many home-grown players who use deception to fool referees and gain an advantage, and that deception only works when referees take the bait.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when NBA teams limited the amount of talented African-Americans per team, few people protested an injustice that kept deserving players from making a living, joining the league and raising its competitive level. Many black athletes of their time had to "know their place" in the NBA pecking order. Speaking out on these issues had the evil consequence of setting the cause back. Similarly, international players gain nothing by publicly reacting to such ignorance, and they have no natural or influential constituency in the United States that can intervene on their behalf and set the record straight.
Ignorance and stereotypical labeling should have no room in the NBA, or in the United States. Beyond calling three South American players European because they spent only a few years of their professional development in Europe (a minor example of ignorance), labeling them as floppers and blaming flopping as a foreign import is unfair, incorrect and xenophobic. In the end, such xenophobia is a form of protectionism.
Let's rid the NBA of all labels.