Is NBA's Fine on Marco Belinelli's 'Marbles' Celebration Fair or Unfair?

Sean HojnackiFeatured ColumnistMay 6, 2013

In Sunday's Game 7 win over the Brooklyn Nets, Marco Belinelli tallied 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting (3-of-6 from downtown) with six boards, two assists and a steal. That line helped the Chicago Bulls edge past the Nets with a huge road win and vaulted them to a meeting with the Miami Heat in Round 2.

But it was his marbles that had the league office up in arms. In a scene reminiscent of Footloose, the NBA informed Belinelli that he was not allowed to dance the way he did after draining a big triple late in the game to put the Bulls up by 10.

Belinelli celebrated with a gesture implying the large size of his testicles. That so-called "marbles" charade lightened his wallet by $15,000 as the league announced his fine on Monday (per Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY). 

Ultimately, all employees surrender some of their right to free speech when they're at work, but this was not a violent or threatening taunt; it was not a "choke" sign or a "throat slit" gesture. It was merely Belinelli throwing out a little braggadocio in a big moment.

Perhaps the league office has retained Helen Lovejoy ("Oh, won't somebody please think of the children?!") as its dean of discipline.

Players have done this gesture in the past with no repercussion from the league. The amount of the fine ranks Belinelli's marbles dance as less of an infraction than criticizing referees ($25,000) but triply as bad as flopping ($5,000). And that's utterly unfair.


The History of the Marbles Dance

Retired NBAer Sam Cassell is typically credited with coining the large testicles pantomime celebration, but he never received a fine for it. Cassell did not play in the 2008-09 season and retired that offseason, so some of his peers paid tribute to the signature move.

But, as with comedy, timing is everything.

Kobe Bryant did it against the San Antonio Spurs in 2009 after hitting a late go-ahead trey and received no rebuke from the league.

Hilariously, the L.A. Lakers went on to lose that game. 

And the same thing happened to Andre Iguodala in 2009, then with the Philadelphia 76ers, in a loss to the Boston Celtics. Ray Allen—now that guy's got marbles.

The lesson: Don't break out the Cassell dance unless you just hit a game-winner (and you have tens of thousands of dollars that you don't need). Good thing for Belinelli that the Bulls held on to outlast Brooklyn.

For whatever reason, around 2010, David Stern figured out what the positioning and jostling of the hands signified in Cassell's dance and decided the action would merit a $25,000 fine.

Eddie House and Josh Smith each had to cough up $25,000 back in 2011 for the infraction (via Perhaps Belinelli's gesture only cost him $15,000 because he didn't include the caressing and jostling motion made famous by Cassell. 

Regardless, this seems like an overly sensitive reaction from the NBA. 


The Italian Stallion

If you haven't watched much of the Bulls this season, you can be forgiven for not knowing who exactly Marco Belinelli is. He's one among Chicago's patchwork backcourt, along with Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton. 

During the season, the Italian averaged 9.6 points on 39.5 percent shooting in 25.8 minutes per game. Those numbers represented a slight decline in his production from the previous two seasons with the New Orleans Hornets, but Belinelli still provided a strong scoring option for Chicago with Derrick Rose out. 

While he offers nothing special on defense, he can pile up the points when he's in rhythm. He had nine straight games of double-digit scoring in December and three consecutive games with 20 points or more in March.

He also has a knack for coming through in the clutch. Belinelli canned three game-winning shots during the regular season (March 8 vs. the Utah Jazz, Jan. 18 at the Boston Celtics and Jan. 23 vs. the Detroit Pistons).

But Belinelli is the epitome of a hot-and-cold player. Sometimes he plays like Manu Ginobili, while other times he looks more like Sasha Pavlovic. Fortunately for Chicago, the Italian has excelled since Hinrich was lost following the Bulls' triple-overtime thriller in Game 4 against Brooklyn.


The Real Origin of Cassell's Boast

Cassell's gesture was nothing new in the sports world, as anyone who has seen the classic film Major League II can tell you. Aside from being one of the greatest sequels of all time—in a class with Aliens and The Godfather Part II—it also introduced the character Isuro "Kamikaze" Tanaka.

After slugger Pedro Cerrano converted to Buddhism, he lost his edge and his swing. Tanaka confronts him and accuses him of having "no marbles," which becomes a powerful motivation tactic.

Tanaka later deploys the "marbles" sign mid-game to taunt Cerrano, who responds by finally hitting a home run and demonstrating to the dugout that he did indeed have marbles.

When Major League II was released in 1994, Cassell was in his rookie season with the Houston Rockets. Cassell could not be reached for comment, but it seems a pretty good bet that he's the kind of guy who would dig that movie.

So all things considered, a $15,000 price tag just for paying homage to a great movie and a pretty good, albeit strange-looking, retired NBA player is extraordinarily unfair. Stern should save the fines for truly offensive things, like the Milwaukee Bucks' first-round series against the Heat.