The NBA’s new 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Flop.
Those adjudged by the league’s top cop, Stu Jackson, to have shamelessly attempted to induce officials into calling unwarranted offensive fouls by virtue of what the late, great Johnny Most used to label “phony flops,” will be subject to a succession of fines. First offense will carry a warning. A second will cost someone $5,000, a third $10,000, a fourth $15,000, and a fifth — now this guy would have to be an incorrigible — $30,000.
Hall of Famer Dave Cowens has a better idea.
“Why don’t they just show a replay of the Newlin thing?” he suggests. “That should end it.”
For those of you who weren’t avid followers of the NBA on Feb. 25, 1976, here is a brief summary.
It was the third quarter. Enraged because Houston guard Mike Newlin, a sturdy 6-foot-4-inch guard, had just pulled off a second successful “phony flop” on him, Cowens decided to enact some vigilante justice.
Newlin was running down the right side of the court on the ensuing Rockets possession. Cowens ran diagonally, catching up to Newlin as the latter reached a spot in front of the Boston bench. Cowens delivered what could best be described as a double forearm shiver, knocking Newlin to the floor. He then ran over to referee Bill Jones and screamed, “Now that’s a foul!”
There were any number of interesting postscripts emanating from Cowens’s act of violence, but expulsion from the game was not one of them. Today, of course, it would be as “flagrant” a foul as one could possibly imagine. Cowens would be ejected and, undoubtedly, suspended. Newlin’s lawyer might also seek criminal prosecution.
But times were different in 1976. In fact, the only person who wound up being ejected was Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn.
The immediate ramification was that the Celtics, who were then trailing in the game by 11, got the benefit of just about every call and non-call from then on. Boston wound up winning, 103-102. A second piece of fallout was Newlin’s need to wear a Thomas collar for several days.
The real fun started when I wrote a Sunday column denouncing the act as being foolish and excessively violent. Keep in mind I was the unofficial president of the Dave Cowens Fan Club. Cowens being the ultimate American Original, had a totally Cowensian response.
On March 2, 1976, a letter addressed to me arrived at the Globe. It was on David W. Cowens Basketball School stationery (this is relevant). Copies had been sent to John Nucatola, the NBA’s head of officials; Larry Fleisher, executive director of the Players Association; and to Mike Newlin himself. In 13 well-written paragraphs, Dave Cowens outlined his philosophy on “phony flops.”
“THE PURPOSE — To once and for all impress upon the referees, coaches, players and fans that fraudulent, deceiving and flagrant acts of pretending to be fouled when little or no contact is made, is just as outrageously unsportsmanlike as knocking a player to the floor. [My italics.] I would not and never have taught youngsters to play other than by the rules, morals, ethics and character of the game.”
He went on to say that in his view phony flopping “makes players think they can achieve their goal without putting in the work or effort that it takes to develop any skill or talent,” and “arouses the ignorant fans who react vehemently to violent gestures.”
Cowens also warned that “if this practice continues unrestrained or the actor is allowed to utilize this fraudulent exercise successfully, it will gradually become an accepted strategy and will be taught to kids more enthusiastically by their coaches.”
He concluded by saying, “I would appreciate receiving equal time on this matter and request that this letter be printed unedited in the Boston Globe.”
We, of course, complied.
That was 36 years and one commissioner ago. Would Dave Cowens care to amend his thoughts?
“No way,” he thunders. “Let players police themselves. Let ’em whack each other around a little.”
The little irony of this saga is that a Celtic may have been as responsible as anyone else for championing the art of the phony flop.
For it was none other than Frank Ramsey who happily allowed himself to be the subject of a pictorial essay written by the great Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated many years before. It was all sold as gamesmanship.
Flopping is a subject that will always interest Dave Cowens, who thinks that the way the game has evolved has clearly encouraged the act he so despises.
“Once they put that little circle in by the basket,” he points out, “the focus became on getting someone to make contact with you, rather than to make a play on the ball.”
He also traces the explosion of flopping to an unintended consequence of the 3-point shot, which has altered the entire concept of modern basketball offense. You simply do not see the type of intricate plays there were in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Now it’s pick-and-roll, or in this case, drive and dish to a spotted-up 3-point shooter.
“There’s more dribbling, and more guys wanting to be a hero by stepping in front of someone,” he explains.
Hence, of course, the opportunity to impress a gullible referee by flopping. (I can still hear Johnny Most moaning, “Stanislavski’s here tonight!” when the Celtics would play Chicago and its noted flopper Jerry Sloan.)
As an aside, I’m not as concerned about the embellishment of collisions near the basket as someone takes it to the hoop as I am about the epidemic of floppers taking their dives 30 feet from the basket, or even in the backcourt. This is a bunch of nonsense that should never be rewarded, and for this I blame incompetent refs who should know better.
I would like to think that Stu Jackson will be chastising dumb officials for falling prey to phony flops every bit as much as the offending players. If players knew their chicanery would not be looked upon favorably, perhaps we could eliminate it.
Better still, allow Cowens to suit up and spend a night with each team in the league. He may be 64, but he’s still in pretty good shape. A couple of “Now that’s a fouls!” and Stu Jackson can tend to other matters.
Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.