[Editor's note: Given the recent and serious referee scandal, it is easy to forget that players cheat, too -- though in a different way. We asked David Thorpe to tell us -- and show us -- how and why players get away with breaking the rules in games.]
The NBA game, broken down to its core, is quite simple. It features athletes who are really fast and agile, very tall and strong, and deeply competitive and incredibly savvy on the basketball court.
In short, pro basketball players are likely the finest collection of pure athletes with the widest range of size in any sport. And they are taught, inspired and programmed to find any way possible to win a game. To them, "cheating" that will help them or their team is "trying."
Now, consider the average 26-year-old player. He has played approximately four years of high school ball (including AAU), three years in college and five years in the NBA. That represents somewhere between 600 and 1,000 games played since he was 14 years old. Not practice, but games, with officials.
Over those years, it is only natural to expect that the player has learned, in an almost evolutionary way, how to take advantage of the rules and the fact that there are only three officials on the court trying to watch so much violent action and technique.
Perhaps as a young player, his efforts to influence a play outside what the rules allow were too obvious, and thus were acted upon by an official. The referees do see most infractions and flops and pushes for what they are. But the experienced player learns from his mistakes, thus gaining a significant advantage.
Try watching an NBA game not as a fan but as an observer. Seeking out those kinds of "cheating" plays -- flops on offense or defense, arm pulling in the paint, jersey grabbing away from the ball, or illegal use of hands and elbow -- will not be as simple as you think.
In almost every case, you will not be sure whether the referee made a mistake on a charge or blocking call you initially thought was a flop, or on the foul called on what appeared was an "all ball" as the shooter crumpled to the floor. The tiny push in the back to get an offensive rebound, was it really a push?
It's hard to tell because the players are so fast and strong and the actual "cheating" moves are done so subtly. Maybe the player bumped the guy in front of him to get the ball, or perhaps the player in front flopped forward to get a call.
Asking the officials to call all this perfectly is impossible, so the players know there are times and actions that allow them a window of opportunity to "get away" with something. Who's going to call a foul on Michael Jordan with just a few seconds on the clock of what might be his last game ever as he oh-so-slightly pushes Bryon Russell off him as he rises for a title-winning jump shot? In the middle of the second quarter, that call might have been made.
Some players try things all the time, and they typically get caught. The smart ones pick their spots better.
Players must learn to adapt in order to survive in the NBA, overcoming their weaknesses by using their own unique strengths. The slower player must become stronger or shoot the ball better. The smaller player must be quicker or smarter. So it is with the "gray areas" of the game because all players understand that cheating is ingrained in the sport, and deal with it they must.
If you are driving to the basket against a known "flopper," you must be wary of hitting him at all, or just be prepared to get one or two charging calls in the game and be extra careful not to pick up any other silly fouls.
If you are matched up with a player known for bumping his rebounding opponents off balance, you must box out more aggressively and lower your center of gravity to hold your ground.
The shooter who likes to fall? Be sure not to touch him -- if his fall is seen by the official as a clear flop, he likely won't get a call the rest of the night.
Yes, there are some risks when a player hopes to take advantage of a situation and tries to "buy" a call from an official by acting dramatically. As we have learned all too well recently, referees are human, and they do not like to be burned.
But as long as scores are being kept, and players are being rewarded financially for helping their team win, there will be "cheating" on the court. Change a rule to make it tougher for players to "cheat" and the players will evolve and adapt and eventually take advantage of that new rule. They play too many games and are too smart and crafty not to continue to figure out ways to gain an advantage any way they can. The law of the jungle works on NBA courts, as well.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for the NBA and college players.