Flopping Threatens Culture of NBA, NHL

Flopping Threatens Culture of NBA, NHL

Basketball is all about athleticism. Hockey is all about toughness. LeBron James and Gregory Campbell are the faces of this postseason. But an epidemic of flopping threatens both sports. In fact, the threat is spearheaded by one of Campbell’s teammates, and by James himself.

James stands 6′ 8″, 250 pounds, with a tight end’s frame and a wide receiver’s speed. He can post up centers and harass point guards in a full court press. He’s even turned himself into a decent three point shooter. He was projected for NBA superstardom before he started high school, and drafted #1 when he finished. He made $19 million this year to play for the Miami Heat, and another $42 million from endorsements, according to Forbes.

Campbell is listed at 6′, 198 pounds, which probably includes his hockey gear. He skates on the Boston Bruins fourth line and penalty kill unit, for which he was paid $1.2 million. He was drafted 67th overall in 2002, and scored four goals all season.

Each turned in a signature play that shows how each sport likes to see itself. The NBA has long boasted that it’s a showcase for the world’ best athletes. The NHL is full of tough guys who may punish each other on the ice, but shake hands at the end of a series. It even hands out an award each year for sportsmanship.

If LeBron leads the Heat to their second straight NBA Championship, the cover of the DVD will be James amazing block of overmatched San Antonio center Tiago Splitter. The Spurs were hanging tough in the third quarter, hoping to steal the first two games of the NBA Finals in Miami, when James and the Heat utterly locked them down. LeBron’s stuff of Splitter was the apex of a Heat run that turned a tight Game 2 into a blowout.

Gregory Campbell stays on ice with broken leg

The Boston Bruins stunned the Penguins by dominating the first two games of the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals in Pittsburgh. But the Pens showed up for Game 3 in Boston, and were threatening to take the lead on a second period power play as superstar Evgeni Malkin wound up a wicked slapshot from outside the left circle.

Bruins winger Gregory Campbell slid down to the ice, adopting a “lay and pray” defense to keep the puck from getting to goalie Tuukka Rask. The puck broke Campbell’s leg, but that wasn’t the impressive part.

After writhing in pain for a few seconds, Campbell propped himself up on his stick, got back into position, and continued to kill the Penguins power play. On one leg, Campbell kept harassing Malkin, one of the league’s most dangerous scorers, tried to block another shot with his body, and kept the Penguins out of the net.

For 50 agonizing seconds, Campbell defended one of best hockey players on the planet on a broken leg. And while the crowd at TD Garden didn’t know how badly Campbell was hurt, they could tell that something special had happened as Boston killed the power play, cleared the puck, and gave Campbell a chance to skate to the bench for the last time this season.

Shawn Thorton is Campbell linemate, Boston’s enforcer, and a Charlestown resident. Following Game 3, he told the Boston Globe’s Amelie Benjamin what Campbell, nicknamed “Soupy” had done for his team.

“I don’t know how many people have broken a leg, but it’s not easy to stand on, let alone skate around on,” Thornton said. “It takes a lot of heart to skate off on your own. And he tried to block another one after that. There’s a lot of people that would have stayed down.”

Center Patrice Bergeron, who has battled concussions throughout his career, explained what Soupy’s shift meant to the locker room.

“Again, we’re talking about details, we’re talking about little things that go a long way, and that block was super. That’s the way he is. He sacrifices the body always for the team, for the better of the team,” reported ESPN of Bergeron. “Obviously we tried to rally behind that and do it for him because he’s a big part of our team on and off the ice.”

Campbell’s play for so inspirational that it crossed sports and rivalries. Hall of Fame baseball reporter Peter Gammons tweeted that the New York Yankees, of all teams, put a picture of Campbell in their Major League Baseball Draft room with a caption reading, “This is the makeup we’re looking for.”

Boston Bruins have been inspired before

The two blocks put the respective cultures of the NBA and NHL in stark relief. Even as James overpowers inferior players, he’s also leading a league-wide epidemic of flopping. Campbell’s shift is how the NHL would like to define itself, even as unsportsmanlike gamesmanship creeps onto the ice.

As the Bruins and Blackhawks begin their best of seven quest for the Stanley Cup tonight in Chicago, Campbell will be watching in a cast. Boston drew similar inspiration from an injured teammate two years ago.

Trailing the Stanley Cup Finals two games to none to the loaded Vancouver Canucks, the Bruins were moving the puck through center ice five minutes into Game 3. Just after Nathan Horton flicked a pass to Milan Lucic, Canuck Aaron Rome leveled Horton at the blue line. The hit was either borderline late or to Boston fans, the worst cheap shot since Jack Tatum paralyzed Darryl Stingley in a 1978 preseason game between the Raiders and Patriots.

Campbell’s play was notable because he got up and kept playing. Horton’s hit was terrifying, because he lay motionless on the ice.

Horton’s season was over. Rome was suspended for the remainder of the Finals. The Bruins rallied around Horton, and ran Vancouver off the ice in four of the next five games.

Following Campbell’s epic shift, the Bruins edged past the Penguins in overtime, and completed the sweep with a 1-0 win in Game 4 to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals.

LeBron says he “doesn’t need to flop”

James is also in familiar territory. The Spurs swept James and the Cavaliers out of the NBA Finals in 2007. But then James made The Decision to take his talents to South Beach, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, and topping the Oklahoma City Thunder last year. King James finally wore the crown.

LeBron has been the best player in the league for a while, but he may have gotten even better this season. James led the Heat to a league best 66-16 record, 12 games ahead of the Knicks in the Eastern Conference. He settled any lingering alpha dog issues with teammate Dwayne Wade, while improving as a passer and teammate. And yet James just can’t get no respect.

With one title in hand, and another at his fingertips, James can no longer be called a choker. But he can be called a flopper. Despite sometimes enormous physical advantages over his rivals, James still relies on taking extra steps, charging through defenders, and falling to the ground like he’s been shot at the slightest contact with an opposing player.

The NBA hasn’t seriously enforced its travelling rules in a half-century, and superstars from Wilt to Larry to Michael have always gotten the benefit of the doubt when drawing fouls on lesser players. But James penchant for flopping even as smaller players bounce off him infuriates legions of basketball fans north of Boca Raton.

During Miami’s second-round series with Chicago, Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau called out James for flopping. James responded by recognizing that flopping was an effective strategy for some players, but insisting he didn’t do it.

“I play an aggressive game but I don’t flop. I’ve never been one of those guys. I don’t need to flop. I don’t even know how to do it,” James explained.

If he didn’t know how to flop against the Bulls, James learned quickly during the Heat’s tough test against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers have a solid starting five, but no bench. The first sign of foul trouble would lead to mismatches for James, Wade, and Chris Bosh.

James did his best to get Indiana in foul trouble, even when he wasn’t fouled. James and Pacer David West ensured that the 2013 Playoffs would be the Year of the Flop in the fourth quarter of Game 4. With just over four minutes to play in a two-point game, West called for the ball as he tried to post-up James. He never got it.

The pair glanced past each other in the lane, James throwing himself at the foul line like a soldier diving on a grenade as West flailed towards the baseline like the world’s tallest and least nimble ballerina. While the NBA has seen its share of bad acting, nothing quite exemplified the art of the flop like these two masters in a spontaneous, inglorious duet.

Following the game, the league fined both players $5,000 for violating the anti-flopping rules put in place this season. Pacer Lance Stephenson was also fined $5,000 for an unrelated flop in the first quarter.

David Stern fed up with flopping in NBA

In the postgame press conference, James again denied being a serial flopper. Asked again prior to Game 5, James echoed both Bill Belichick and Drew Rosenhaus.

USA Today quotes James as saying “It is what it is.” When pressed, he added, “Man, quit it. Next question.”

In Game 6, James drew an offensive foul on Pacer Paul George on a play where James ran into George and jumped backwards like he’d struck a live wire. That borderline flop was not called, and did not draw a fine.

But NBA Commissioner David Stern has had enough of watching the world’s best basketball players put on a bad vaudeville routine. Stern told teams at the beginning of the season that anti-flopping rules would be enforced, with fines for repeat offenders. 19 players received warnings from the league, but no player was fined more than $5,000.

Stern says thinking such small fines would change the behavior of players making an average of $5.5 million a year was “allowing hope to triumph over reason.” He’s bringing the issue back before the NBA’s Competition Committee this week. He hints that suspending players would stop the flops, but thinks that would be “a little Draconian at the moment.”

As much as I’d like to classify this year’s NBA Finals as Good Versus Evil, the hard-working, team-first Spurs of Tim Duncan against the South Beach swagger of James and Company, flopping has spread throughout the league.

Spurs guard Manu Ginobilli ranked 4th in a 2010 Sports Illustrated poll asking NBA players to name the biggest floppers in the game. That same year, Ginobili was just behind consensus flopping champion Anderson Varejo in the Orlando Sentinel’s list, which noted Ginobili’s renowned ability to flop on both offense and defense.

When the NBA sent out its preseason anti-flopping video, both San Antonio’s Tony Parker and Miami’s Dwayne Wade were featured.

I should differentiate flopping from whining. My beloved Celtics are led by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, two future Hall of Famers who work the refs like a local politician who’s three votes behind. I watched current General Manager Danny Ainge play eight seasons for the Celtics, while never committing a personal foul that he’d admit to.

Mavericks, and maverick, owner Mark Cuban has history of tugging on Stern’s cape. Last week, he awarded a $100,000 grant to Southern Methodist University to study flopping in professional sports. SMU biomechanical experts will spend the next 18 months, and Cuban’s money, investigating the forces in typical basketball collisions and how players would naturally react to them. Former Maverick J.J. Berea should volunteer as a test subject.

This is not a completely new field of academic research. In 2008, Paul Morris and David Lewis looked into diving in soccer, which FIFA refers to as “simulation”. Tackling Diving: The Perception of Deceptive Intentions in Association Football (Soccer) studied the “ballistic continuity” and “contact consistency” of players diving for cheap calls.

Flopping infects the NHL

Getting an opponent thrown out in soccer is a huge advantage, forcing teams to play a man down for the rest of the game. Major hockey penalties can give almost as big an edge, letting teams skate five on four for five minutes. Even minor two-minute penalties have a much bigger impact than an NBA Flagrant Foul, which awards two shots and the ball. So why aren’t hockey players diving onto the ice like their flopping NBA counterparts?

Dan Bickley says diving in on the rise. The Arizona Republic columnist dove into the subject after Phoenix Coyotes Captain Shane Doan was tossed out of Game 2 of last year’s Western Conference Finals for running L.A. Kings forward Trevor Lewis into the boards.

Boarding is one of hockey’s most dangerous infractions, as an unsuspecting player is smashed face-first into the side of the rink. But Lewis saw Doan coming, and turned towards the boards as the hit arrived.

By putting himself in danger to turn a clean hit into a game misconduct, was Lewis flopping? Bickley thinks so.

“If you exaggerate or fake an injury in an attempt to make the referee penalize your opponent, you are not playing fair,” Bickley wrote following the incident. “You are tearing at the fabric of sportsmanship, which should be the foundation of every athletic event.”

Bickley tags Vlade Divac as the “Father of Flopping” in the NBA, bringing European soccer tactics to the hardwood. Coyotes GM Don Maloney told Bickley that there’s “terrible amounts of embellishment” in Russian and Czech hockey leagues.

Lewis may have drawn a cheap call, but he wasn’t faking an injury. He face was a bloody mess after Doan’s hit. In hockey, even the floppers end up bleeding. And the league tacitly acknowledged that Lewis may have gotten away with something. Coyote teammate Martin Hanzal was also ejected for Boarding in Game 2, and was suspended for Game 3. Doan was allowed back on the ice.

Hockey’s diving disease metastasizes in Montreal

While diving disease may have spread from Europe, it has metastasized in Montreal. The speedy but undersized Canadians drew 203 power play opportunities this season, 18 more than second place Detroit, and scored 42 power play goals, two behind league-leading Washington. Like a basketball player driving the lane in hopes of getting to the foul line, Montreal plays for penalties.

During the Bruins last run to the Finals, they had to get by Montreal in the first round. Late in Game 3, Habs defenseman Roman Hamrlik dove after a clean hit from Michael Ryder, prompting Bruins play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards to shout “Get up!” from the booth.

Early in Game 7, the Bruins were up 2-1 but facing a Montreal power play when defensemen P.K. Subban tried to give his team a two-man advantage. Subban pinned Gregory Campbell’s glove under his arm, trying to fool the officials into calling a penalty. When Campbell finally pulled free, Subban took a quick look behind him before jumping backwards to the ice. His acting went unrewarded.

In the third period of that decisive game, Hamrlik again tried to buy a call following a clean hit from Chris Kelly. As Hamrlik lay on the ice, the Bruins drove into the Canadians’ zone. Kelly’s goal on a rebound put the Bs up 3-2 in a game they would win 4-3 in overtime.

“He dove one time too many!” Edwards screamed. After the game, Edwards would compare the Bruins triumph to the American Revolution, so maybe we can put a little too much importance on hockey culture.

Brad Marchand- gritty rat or dirty diver?

We’ll see if the Stanley Cup Finals can match the bad dance routines of the Heat-Pacers series. Red Wings Coach Mike Babcock thought that Blackhawks winger Marion Hossa took a dive in front of the net during last month’s playoff series. Chicago center Patrick Kane has occasionally fallen down after hits that didn’t look all that bad. But the most controversial player on the ice will undoubtedly be Boston’s Brad Marchand.

The 5-9 left wing helped spark the Bruins to the Cup two years ago in his first full season in the NHL. Since then, Marchand has become one of the most loved players in Boston, and most hated around the league. Nicknames include Nose-Faced Killer, The Rat (handed down with the blessing of Ken Linseman), and the Little Ball of Hate, a name first given to Pat Verbeek but transferred to Marchand by President Obama during the Bruins 2011 White House visit.

Marchand, to be kind, is a pest. He steals pucks, kills penalties, and can outplay more skilled opponents through sheer annoyance. And when the league’s enforcers try to make Marchand pay for pestering their superstars, the Rat fights back.

Following Horton’s concussion in Game 3 of the 2011 Finals, Marchand sparked the Bruins into a higher gear. Ahead three goals in the third period, Marchand dished out some payback, using Canucks winger Daniel Sedin’s face like a punching bag. Vancouver has a hard time matching Boston’s intensity for the rest of the series.

Some would contend that Marchard is also an Olympic level diver. As a Bruins fan, I find this suggestion both groundless and offensive. It’s just that Marchand is so small. Even the slightest contact can send him flying across the rink, especially if the ref is watching.

Bruins centers Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin are more electric scorers. Defenseman Zdeno Chara is a towering symbol of Coach Claude Julien’s defense-first style. And goalie Tuukka Rask stood on his head to lead the Bruins past the mighty Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s Tuukka, with two Us, two Ks, and just two goals against in the four-game sweep.

But it is Marchand’s gritty, arguably dirty, style that energizes the Bruins. The team is opportunistic and relentless, overcoming a three-goal third-period deficit to beat Toronto in the first round.

LeBron James shows the NBA at its best and worst

During the Bruins second-round series with the Rangers, forward Derrick Brassard tried to make Marchand pay for his antics, dropping the gloves on the ice, and calling him out after the game for fighting.

“Sometimes he doesn’t show any respect for his opponents,” Brassard told the New York Post heading into Game 5. “He’s been asking everybody on our team to fight all series, so I thought it was time to take him up on it, but then I guess he didn’t have any interest.”

A league full of players who take pride in policing themselves aren’t cracking down on these borderline tactics. Marchand is thriving, despite occasional suspensions. Lewis’s Kings won the Cup last year, and made it to the Western Conference Finals this season. Subban will reportedly win the Norris Trophy, given annually to the league’s top defenseman.

Hockey players want to win as much as basketball players. Flopping, cheap shots, and violations of hockey’s unwritten honor code can help.

In James’ words, “Any way you can get an advantage over the opponent to help your team win, so be it.”

But players like Doan worry that winning by flopping will leave the NHL unable to defend its reputation as a place where injuries are ignored, not embellished.

“In this sport, you hear the legendary stories of guys who came off the ice cut up and bleeding all over the place,” Doan told Bickley. “They get up and they keep going. They keep playing. It’s Bobby Clarke missing teeth. That’s hockey.”

This year, hockey is Gregory Campbell’s broken leg. But it’s also Brad Marchand sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Basketball is both LeBron James blocking a shot and LeBron James flopping to the floor.

Grant Bosse is Editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy. He is a Senior Fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. The article was cross-posted at New Hampshire Watchdog.