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Did He Get His Money’s Worth?

NBA players get fined all the time. Which ones make it count?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Let me try to tell this first story as efficiently as I can so we can get to the basketball part of this article, because that’s what this is about, believe it or not.

When I was teaching, there was a discipline policy where, if a student was written up for cussing, no matter the word, and no matter the use (short of a threat), he or she received two days of in-school suspension. In-school suspension is where a kid is placed in a single room and, minus bathroom breaks, has to spend the entire day there. There’s no talking, no trip to an ancillary period like art or gym, no nothing. It is, in my opinion, a fruitless punishment. But I mention it because there was a time when one of my students, a generally likable kid but not without his moments of jaggedness, missed two days of class for cussing. Let’s say it was something like a Tuesday when it happened, so that means he missed my class that Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon.

When he showed up on Thursday, I asked him where he’d been. (I already knew the answer because teachers get regular updates on where their missing students are, but I’d always ask the kids where they’d been when they were gone.) He said, “I was in ATS.” (ATS is what our school called the in-school suspension program. It stands for Alternative to Suspension.) I asked him why. He said something like, “I said a cuss word when [SCHOOL POLICE OFFICER] was talking to me.” I asked him to tell me everything that happened, and he described a situation in which he threw a piece of food at one of his friends during lunch and the officer scooped him up to take him to the office. The boy, frustrated because he and his friend were just goofing around but also wanting to show off a little for the rest of the kids around him, said something close to, “You’re really gonna take me to the office for this? Goddamn, man. Come on.”

Bang. The officer wrote him up for saying “goddamn,” and that was that. That’s how he got his two days in student prison. So he told me this story, and when he finished I started laughing. I said, “Dude, you gotta know better,” and he thought I meant that he shouldn’t have said “goddamn.” I suppose that’s kind of what I meant, but not really. I told him, a repeat cussing offender, that he’d misplayed the situation. “You knew if you cussed you were going to get two days, right,” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “And you cussed anyway, right,” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “OK,” I said. “That’s fine. I get it. Sometimes you just gotta let that evil out. I understand that. I do the same thing. But if you’re going to get two days of ATS for it, then you might as well really go for it.” “What do you mean?” he said, and by this point most all the kids in the class were listening. I said, “I mean, if you’re going to get two days for saying ‘goddamn’, then you should’ve just really went to town. Nobody’s going to remember in a week that you said ‘goddamn’ under your breath to the officer, but if you’d have really just went off and let a whole bunch of M-Fers and B’s and S’s fly, then you could’ve lived on that story for at least the rest of the year.”

Now, I want to be clear here, and I explained this same point to him and the rest of the kids: I wasn’t arguing for him to cuss out that particular adult, or any adult, or any human. My point was if you know that if you do a thing and the result will be a punishment or some other sort of consequence, then you might as well get your money’s worth. I think that’s a good principle to stand by. Make it count. Make whatever you do, good or bad, worth it.

That interaction was the first thing I thought about when I saw that the NBA was fining Jordan Clarkson $15,000 for his forearm shiver above Goran Dragic’s shoulders during a Lakers-Heat game last week. I saw the fine amount, recalled the play, and thought: Did Clarkson get his money’s worth there?

The NBA has already fined its players more than $1.7 million this season. Some of those fines were for big, un-fun things. Some of them, though, were fun, funny, silly, or interesting. Let’s look through a few of the more entertaining ones and try to figure out if each player got his money’s worth.

The Infraction and Fine: At the end of a November game between the Rockets and the Wizards, John Wall, my favorite NBA point guard named after a structure, was ejected. There were just seconds left and it was clear the Wizards were going to lose, and as Wall was walking back toward his huddle, perhaps a bit frustrated with the game or with having received a technical foul earlier or just with being a member of the Washington Wizards, he brushed up against a referee on his way back to his bench. The ref told Wall to “watch himself.” Wall, according to the ref, responded with vulgarities. Wall received his second technical, was ejected, took a little too long leaving the court, and eventually received a $25,000 fine from the NBA for an “inappropriate interaction” with the referee.

Did He Get His Money’s Worth? There are two things to point out here. The first is that Wall did an ace job of making the contact he made with the ref seem like an accident, even though it very clearly was not. Look how expertly he did it:

Step 1. He spies the location of the ref. It’s this exact moment when he (likely) says to himself, “Fuck it. Let me go on and bump this guy right now.” He calibrates in his head his own path toward the bench, then he inputs where the ref is likely headed, and then uses that to figure out how to brush up against the ref *****just***** enough so that the ref knows it wasn’t an accident, but not enough that it could ever definitively be interpreted as a malicious act. He’s as devastating a petty taunter as he is a twirling layup master. I respect him so much.

Step 2. He initiates contact with the ref. Again, we see an expert-level move from Wall here. The ref is moving a bit, so Wall, rather than turn his head too early and potentially miss bumping the ref, keeps it straight forward until he makes contact with him, thus guaranteeing himself a 100 percent successful brush-up-against. It’s the same way he spies all the pieces of a defense without looking directly at them. He’s on his peripheral vision shit right here.

Step 3. He creates his alibi. Wall knows the cameras are on him. He knows he’s going to have to answer at least a question or two about the brush-up-against. And he knows there’ll be a consequence if he doesn’t have at least a semibelievable argument that he didn’t intend on running into the ref. And so here he creates his alibi. Just as soon as he feels that he’s bumped into the ref, he turns his head to the other side of the court. “How could I have planned that,” he probably said to someone. “I wasn’t even looking at him.” It’s truly gifted work by Wall. Which is why it’s such a disaster that it all crumbles away.

The referee, knowing full and good and well that Wall bumped him on purpose but also knowing that he’d never be able to prove it, tosses a baited hook in front of Wall by telling him to watch himself. It’s enough to get Wall to turn back toward him and say something unnecessarily evil, which is all the reason the referee needs to hit him with his second technical. The referee wins. Malibooyah.

It’s like Wall painted the Petty Mona Lisa with his perfectly executed and impossible-to-prosecute bump, and then he went and drew over it with crayons by cussing at the ref. Did Wall get his money’s worth? No. No, he did not. $25,000 is less than two-tenths of 1 percent of Wall’s annual salary, but this wasn’t about the money. This was about what it represented: war.

And Wall lost.

The Infraction and the Fine: During a November game between the Bulls and the Pacers, Paul George kicked a ball several rows into the stands in frustration. It hit a woman in the face. Then the NBA hit him in the face with a $15,000 fine.

Did He Get His Money’s Worth? He definitely did not, for two different reasons. First, it turned out that he’d meant to kick the ball into the stanchion, not the crowd. It was just that he couldn’t control the ball like he assumed he could; it squirted sideways rather than forward (a common mistake for most people who put the point of their foot on a ball), and ended up in the stands. He explained it as such after the ejection.

Second, and this is similar to the story at the beginning of this article, he just didn’t take a big enough swing here. If you’re going to kick a ball, you already 100 percent know you’re going to get fined. And since there’s no rule that says the distance you kick the ball is correlated to the size of your fine, it would seem to make the most sense to just kick the ball as hard as you fucking can. Probably the best example of getting your money’s worth in this situation was in 2004, when Tracy McGrady, upset that he’d not received a foul call but actually upset because the Magic were in the middle of a bad season, kicked a ball 20-some-odd rows into the stands. When someone tossed it back onto the court, he quickly grabbed it and then punted it even farther into the stands. Look:

McGrady received a $10,000 fine (total) for those two kicks. And I’m sure it felt much more cathartic than Paul’s kick. McGrady got his money’s worth. Paul George did not.

Sidebar: The best thing about George’s ejection is that it was the first of his career, and so he didn’t know that he was supposed to leave the court. Instead, he went and sat back on the bench. Monta Ellis, who played three seasons in Golden State with Stephen Jackson, the fucking king of ejections and a legal expert on all ejections-based rulings, knew Paul had to leave, and so when Paul sat next to him on the bench you could see Monta repeatedly telling him he had to leave.

Monta is eternal.

The Infraction and the Fine: Playing his first game in Chicago as a member of the Bulls, Dwyane Wade hit a game-sealing 3 in the final minute. His reaction: a throat-slash gesture. The NBA’s reaction: a $25,000 fine.

Did He Get His Money’s Worth? Yes. Of course. A throat-slash gesture, easily the coolest of all the murder gestures, is easily worth the inevitable $25,000 fine. Here’s a list of other gestures, with rulings on whether or not they’re worth a potential $25,000 fine: a nonsarcastic thumbs-up (no); a very sarcastic thumbs-up (yes); a choking gesture (yes); a humping gesture (no, but it will never not be noteworthy); a talk-to-the-hand gesture from the ’90s (only if you’re Steph Curry, because a talk-to-the-hand gesture is the most on-brand hand gesture for him); the mocking-a-referee-calling-a-tech gesture like what Rasheed Wallace did that one time (absolutely); the gesture where you make a circle with your thumb and forefinger on one hand and then move your index finger on your other hand in and out of the circle to simulate sex (yes, but also only if you’re Steph Curry); shooting finger guns at your opponent (yes); the Italian finger pinch (nope); the thing where your right hand is in a fist and then you pretend to crank a lever along the side of it to make it look like the pretend crank is what’s making your middle finger come up (definitely).

The Infraction and the Fine: During an October game between the Kings and the Timberwolves, DeMarcus Cousins protested a late-game blocking foul by stomping into the stands and then throwing his mouthpiece while he was up there. The mouthpiece didn’t hit anyone (nor did Cousins). The NBA fined him $25,000.

Did He Get His Money’s Worth? Probably. This was more than George was fined for kicking the ball into the stands, but there was no trepidation or misstepping here: DeMarcus absolutely meant to go into the stands and he absolutely meant to throw his mouthpiece. Last year in a Finals game, Steph Curry threw his mouthpiece after picking up his sixth foul and the projectile hit a person in the first row and he was also fined $25,000, so, I mean, at least DeMarcus got to Godzilla his way a few rows into the arena. That seems like a fair trade, really.

(Note: In 2012, Rick Carlisle was fined $35,000 for kicking a ball into the stands during a Thunder-Mavericks game. That’s the most anyone’s been fined for throwing or kicking anything into the stands. Unless you count the time some Pacers were suspended without pay after throwing themselves into the stands to fight fans during the Malice at the Palace, in which case, no, Carlisle’s $35,000 is not the most.)

The Infraction and the Fine: In the third quarter of a game earlier this month between the Heat and the Lakers, Jordan Clarkson whopped Goran Dragic in the head/neck with a forearm shiver. Dragic fell to the floor, sprung up, then charged at Clarkson and pretended to want to fight him. (You can tell he was only pretending that he wanted to fight because as he ran toward him he very much had his hands by his sides.) The NBA fined Clarkson $15,000 for the hit.

Did He Get His Money’s Worth? Three things to point out here. First, and this is just a matter of clarification: After the game Dragic said he wasn’t the one who initiated the quarrel, a sentiment that was echoed by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

[Maury Povich walks out. He’s holding an envelope.]

[He sits down.]

[He opens the envelope.]

[He removes the card in the envelope.]

[He begins to speak.]

“The lie detector determined … ” He looks up at Dragic. “That was a lie.”

If you start watching the play when Clarkson and Dragic were tussling in the lane, then yes, it looks like Clarkson was the instigator. But if you go back to just seconds before, you can see Dragic deliver an elbow into Clarkson as Dragic spins around and puts his backside into him. Watch Dragic after he passes the ball:

The second thing to point out is that after the game, Clarkson, when asked about why he squared up on Dragic, said that it was Kobe who told him “never have your hands down in case something happens,” which is just a great quote because it allows us to look back at the time Chris Childs hit Kobe with a two-piece extra-value meal in the chin when Kobe had his hands down during their altercation during a Knicks-Lakers game in 2000:

As far as I’m concerned, April 2 (the day the fight took place) should be celebrated every year on some George Washington’s–birthday-type shit. There should be an animatronic statue of Kobe and Childs nose-to-nose in downtown of every American city, and then right at noon on April 2, when the church bells and things like that are going off in the background, the statue’s pieces should start to move and re-create Childs putting two on Kobe’s chin. What a great moment that was. It was like Basketball Christmas for the anti-Kobeians.

The third thing to point out is that after the NBA released its statement about Clarkson’s fine, he responded with, “I thought it was going to be worse, to be honest with you.” That, to me, sounds like a guy who feels like he definitely got his money’s worth. So yes, in this instance, Clarkson got his money’s worth.