DALLAS -- Billionaires are different than the rest of us. They have money to burn, and in the case of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, money to learn. In the past year Cuban shelled out 100 large to fund a scientific study on flopping in the NBA, just because he was smitten by players faking fouls, so in this case you might argue his money is both burning and learning.
Seriously, now: A hundred grand to understand the complexities and biomechanical execution from the combustible result of forceful contact between a moving mass of human flesh and a stationary being, and whether a healthy degree of chicanery and tomfoolery is being utilized to trigger a favorable response from an impartial and faulty bystander with a whistle, who must make a snap judgment based on the electrodes produced by his eyes?
All for that?
Maybe in the past, when he was a bit new to the NBA ownership game, Cuban mishandled a buck or two. Paying millions to Erick Dampier and Shawn Bradley, 14 feet worth of stiff centers, immediately comes to mind. Hey, we've all thrown away money before, mainly on a cheap pair of socks that sprouted holes after three washings; it's all relative. But Cuban has a better grip now, and has always been a brilliant and cutting-edge guy, and is even richer than ever, so why not part ways with 1/500,000,000 (or so) of your net worth to get to the bottom of an act that's the scourge of the NBA? How can anyone insist, for one second, this isn't money well spent?
And so, for the first time in the history of mankind, and this looks like a one-time thing, flopping is being dissected like a laboratory frog (who, by the way, does a fair amount of flopping once he's violently sliced by a scalpel). It's happening inside a nondescript building just off the Southern Methodist University campus, and being conducted by Peter Weyand, an associate professor for applied physiology and biomechanics. But for this particular study, we'll just call him the Professor of Flopology.
"This is unexplored territory," he said. "There's little to no information on how much force it takes to knock someone off balance, and how much someone can control their resistance. Most of the balance research is done on the elderly, not young and healthy people."
Weyand was a bit surprised to get an email from Cuban a little more than a year ago, asking if the he'd have any interest in conducting a study. Weyand once played collegiately at Bates College where, he said -- and he swears -- he never flopped. Not once.
"Not to my recollection, although that was a long time ago," he added.
Weyand discovered no study had ever been done on flopping -- what a surprise -- and saw it as an opportunity for ground-breaking research on what is a good foul and what's a fake, and the merits of force.
"I think Mark wants to use the scientific process and our expertise to get the answers to these questions, with the hope that we'll be able to provide an applied tool that will protect the integrity of the game, because flopping is a threat."
Oh, but here's the bad news, and why Cuban's $100,000 investment could fetch a $2 return: The conclusions from this research, when it's completed next August, could prove murky and inconclusive.
"That was in one of our discussions with Mark, setting realistic expectations," said Weyand. "I said, maybe we can't give you an outcome. It depends on what science says. It may be that there's a direct path to an applied tool that relates to a fairly high level of accuracy, or maybe there are too many confounding variables."
But: Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? With that, the findings on Flopometrics are being pursued as you read this, and just the other day, Weyand gave a brief demonstration on the current state of the process. Remember, flopping is all about embellishing contact in order to get a favorable whistle. You see it all the time: Big and strong players suddenly reacting like they've been trucked after receiving an elevator-button push. Well, those are the easy calls, the obvious ones. Others are gray-area flops, where contact is negligible, and that's what Weyand and Dr. Larry Ryan, his Flopologist cohort, are trying to determine and diffuse: real fall vs. fake fall.
The "lab" is a room with a mini-treadmill that's mainly used to study SMU athletes with three high-speed cameras and a few computers and other high-tech thingamajigs designed to capture data and break it down.
The Flopologists created a bar with a padding to be used as a ram against D'Marcus Allen, a former high school basketball player and current SMU student.
Like Weyand, Allen also says he never flopped on the court, explaining he grew up playing on asphalt and therefore flopping wasn't worth the busted tailbone. A hypothetical, then: Suppose he was in a championship game, with four seconds left and defending a player who was attacking the basket? Would he flop?
"No, Allen said, "because that would go against the spirit of the game."
Even if it meant a championship?
That's another side to flopping: Nobody will ever admit they flop.
He added: "Watching basketball, I'd say three-quarters of the players do some degree of flopping. The name of the game is, 'let's see how much we can act and get away with.' The officials are more trained to spot it now, but the benefits of flopping are mostly advantageous."
For the demonstration, Allen had a half-dozen sensors on his body, and he was pushed twice by assistant Ken Clark holding the padded bar, and twice Allen fell backward … but never on his wallet. The first push, he didn't brace for the hit, the second time, he did.
And that was it. Demonstration over.
"The first force was 70 pounds, the second was 90 pounds," Weyand said. "That's not a lot."
There are other factors involved with force and flopping that are trickier to quantify. Like: Which way is a player moving and is he off-balance when the contact happens? What about the size differential of players, does that impact force? And what about where on the body is a player pushed?
"We needed a way to standardize someone's balance," said Weyand. "If you're back on your heels, the force will knock you over. So if we want to find out how much legitimate force causes someone to lose balance, we have to standardize the balance position. We can find out where their balance point is under their feet. Are they back on their heels, on the front of their feet or right in the middle? If we don't do that, we're going to get different numbers for every balance situation."
Step One of the study is related to force, Step Two is designed to study two players drawing contact to each other. (If that sounds confusing, well, it is. It's science.) That will be conducted over the next several months, with August targeted to reveal the findings, draw conclusions and report to Cuban.
What Weyand and his crew can't do, right now, is tell the difference between what is a flop and what isn't.
"We're in the early stages of data collecting," he said. "We're trying to discover how much force would it take? Twenty pounds of pressure, 30 pounds? We'll be able to see if some people are better than others at resisting forces by the way they control themselves, through internal control, neuromuscular control or balance factors. Physics should tell you the answers to all of those things. But you don't know how much until you acquire the data."
Cuban emailed to say he just wanted "the facts about flopping" and nothing more, really. Just a simple this-is-how-it's-done, more than the why-it's-done. Because we all know the answer to that: Players will use any advantage they can get, even if it's against the rules, even if it's deceiving the refs, even if it's … well, cheating.
"So many players have acquired the skill of flopping," said Weyand, "that it's hard to tell."
So you've got to give it up to Cuban. He's got the game's best interests at heart. A self-made billionaire is gambling $100,000, ashtray money to him, that a yearlong scientific study on flopping won't turn out to be a flop.
So far, the study is headed in the right direction. Which means, unlike many backpedaling NBA players, it hasn't collapsed.