- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

When it comes to acting prowess, former D.C. United defender Mario Gori never will be confused with Sir Laurence Olivier or even athlete-cum-thespian Shaquille O'Neal. But that doesn't mean the Argentine couldn't deliver a convincing performance.

"Mario used to crack me up," United midfielder Richie Williams said. "He'd get some contact, and he'd go down arm up, grabbing his leg, with a hand over his head, screaming and rolling. And you think, 'Oh, my God, did he just break his leg?'

"But after he does it every week for the whole season, you're thinking, 'Here we go again.' "

Faking a fall. Taking a dive. Flopping. Whatever the name, the practice in sports is always the same: A player suffers light or better yet, imaginary contact from an opponent. He goes down in a spasm of histrionics, as if he's been stabbed, shot and traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. He then draws a wholly undeserved penalty.

Who flops? Better question: Who doesn't?

• It's New York/New Jersey MetroStars forward Aldolfo Valencia, rolling over five times after absorbing a mild shoulder from United defender Carey Talley and earning a crucial penalty kick in a 3-2 MetroStars victory.

• It's Pittsburgh Penguins center Alexei Kovalev, taking a slight bump from Washington Capitals defenseman Ken Klee, hitting the ice like a flaming plane and drawing a penalty on Klee giving the Penguins a decisive overtime power play and a 2-1 win in Game 2 of a first-round playoff series.

• It's Washington Wizards guard Chris Whitney, suckering officials into "at least one or two" phony fouls per game, according to assistant coach Tree Rollins.

"It's an art," Rollins said. "It's part of the game. The officials sometimes know you're flopping, but it looks so good they'll give you the call."

If great sport makes for great theater, then a great flop is akin to professional wrestling patently fake, surprisingly ubiquitous, oddly compelling. What the flop lacks in class, it makes up in craft. And like all classic theater, it can be broken down into three distinct parts:

Act I: The Setup

As is the case with most Oscar-worthy performances, a first-rate dive looks natural, unscripted, spontaneous. In reality, it's anything but. Whitney said he learned his tricks from Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers. Former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson reportedly taught flopping in practice.

Either way, the truly epic fall begins long before game time as divers practice their techniques, study film and search for ways to exploit their opponents anything to gain an advantage.

Like a veteran Hollywood stuntman, the master flopper leaves nothing to chance.

"You can pick up on little things," Rollins said. "For example, when [Wizards forward] 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."

Take former Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer, whose penchant for flailing, screaming and falling at the first hint of contact made him the Godfather of the modern NBA flop. According to Rollins, Laimbeer's ability to draw fouls stemmed as much from his knowledge of opponents' tendencies as his (admittedly considerable) thespian gifts.

"Laimbeer knew when I was going to post up," Rollins said. "So once I'd make that motion, he'd go flying out of the way. Then you'd hear the whistle and know: Here it comes, a dumb foul."

Indeed, effective diving is as much mental as physical. First-rate floppers have an innate sense of which opponents can be baited, of which officials can be fooled, of when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em all the way into the second row.

The cardinal rules: Limit your dives to aggressive opponents. Never let on that you're faking. And don't bother flopping at the end of a close game.

"The refs look for it in tight situations, where guys do a lot of it," said Wizards guard Mitch Richmond. "During the course of the game, they might call one or two your way. But down the stretch, they want you to play solid ball. They won't give you a cheap foul."

Said Whitney: "You don't flop on the first two or three. The referee will see that you're playing through. Then, maybe on the fourth or fifth time, you pick your spot and you'll get the call."

Indeed, judicious use of the flop is a must. Otherwise, Rollins said, a flopper earns a reputation among officials and can end up more helpless than the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

"Some refs know who the floppers are," Rollins said. "So a flopper might take a good charge, but they may not give you the call even though you get your head taken off."

Act II: Falling Down

Even though it's as phony as cubic zirconium, a dive still has to look like an authentic foul. As such, it helps to suffer a little contact not so much to risk actual damage, but just enough to make an official's job that much … easier.

For a football punter, it means leaving one's leg extended for an extra second, the better to entice rabid kick-blockers. In soccer, it means waiting for an opponent to stick out a foot, then tripping over it.

For Whitney, it means taking matters into his own hands. Literally.

"I might be giving away trade secrets, but Chris will hook you first and by the time you react, the official sees you throwing him off and he gets the call," Rollins said. "We'll be on the bench just laughing."

Said Whitney: "Normally, it's the second foul that's seen by the referees. So you make the first attack, and when your guy is trying to dislodge himself from you, you fall down. The ref sees it, and he thinks you're the one getting fouled."

Once the foul and remember, a "foul" is whenever the whistle blows takes place, the real show begins:

• Some floppers take a subdued tack a muffled yelp, a stern grimace, perhaps a valiant, slow-but-steady effort to get up.

"The ones who are the best are the ones who make it look real," said United defender Jeff Agoos. "The guys who fall down and act like they're dead aren't [as effective]."

• Others eschew subtlety for a more direct approach. Think yelling, a few rigorous rolls back and forth and a slew of grotesque faces that would shame Jim Carey.

"A loud scream usually gets you something," said D.C. United defender/midfielder Geoff Aunger, "and a lot of facial expressions. Withering pain across one's face always increases your chance of getting a call."

• A few floppers the guys who fall down and act like they're dead, generally Italian and South American soccer players go all out, composing veritable symphonies of fake agony. The head snaps back. The eyes go glassy. The body spasms like that of a headless chicken. Arms thrust in the air, legs curl into the fetal position, and a lone hand moves to the face the better to hide the weeping.

"It's hilarious sometimes how these guys go down," Williams said. "They'll be holding their knee, screaming for the trainer, going crazy. You'd think that they're dead, that their leg fell off. And then they get up and they're fine."

Said Whitney: "You put a little yell into it, stumble back, act like he just killed you. Doc [Rivers] said to act like it's so bad you can't even play anymore."

Act III: The Aftermath

Assuming a foul is called and if it isn't, perhaps it's time to hand in that SAG card two things happen.

First, the "victim" and his team are unjustly rewarded. The flopper gets a free kick, a pair of free throws, better field position, or some other ill-gotten gain. Meanwhile, the bad, bad man who committed the foul gets penalized and maybe even tossed.

In a 1998 World Cup semifinal match, Croatian defender Slaven Bilic absorbed an imaginary punch to the face from French defender Laurent Blanc. The phantom blow earned Blanc a red card, an immediate ejection and a sideline seat for the Brazil-France final.

"I threw no elbow, no feet," Blanc said after the match. "He played his game to get me thrown out. He came up to me afterward and said he feels sorry he got me thrown out of the final. I guess I should have hit him right there."

Second, the flopper gains a small but important psychological edge: His opponents are now stuck in second-guess limbo, fearing an inevitable sequel.

"With a player who dives, you want to make sure you don't give him too much room or else he'll go around you," Williams said. "On the other hand, you can't just stick your foot in there recklessly, because you know if you get a piece of him, he's going to flop. It gets to your head."

Small wonder, then, that many players detest flopping with a passion typically reserved for salary caps and luxury taxes. In a New York Knicks-Indiana Pacers game last year, Kurt Thomas became so enraged with what he perceived to be flopping by Pacers guard Reggie Miller and swingman Jalen Rose that he attacked Rose at mid-court, garnering a two-game suspension and a $10,000 fine on Christmas Eve.

"It's cheating, it's poor sportsmanship," Aunger said. "It's not showing respect for your opponent. I don't think it's good for the game. But it's part of the game."

And as such, can't flopping be appreciated? Or at least respected for its inherent artistry?

Fans of the long-defunct North American Soccer League were known to hold up cards that read "9.9, 9.8, 9.9," after especially flamboyant dives. In a sports-obsessed era that gladly suffers "Shaq-Fu" the album and the video game can't we do the same?

"It's just a little extra," Whitney said. "You're really getting hit, but it's not as bad as you make it look. My mother will ask, 'Are you all right? You got hit.' And I tell her, 'Nah, Mom, I was just acting.' "

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