There can be a tendency to think of an earlier era of basketball as old-fashioned or straitlaced. Don’t be fooled: There were plenty of shenanigans back in the day, including Larry Bird untying an opponent’s shoes.
Sound familiar? On Jan. 5, J.R. Smith indulged in a bit of chicanery when he bent down and untied the laces on Shawn Marion’s left shoe—this as Dirk Nowitzki was in the middle of shooting free throws.
The total frat move earned a stern warning from the NBA league office. Smith went ahead and tried to do it again two nights later (and was thwarted), this time against Greg Monroe of the Detroit Pistons. The prank resulted in a $50,000 fine.
And what about the olden days and Larry Legend?
Flash back to the Eastern Conference playoffs in 1991 as the Boston Celtics were battling the Indiana Pacers. Larry Bird pulled the same stunt against his nemesis Chuck “The Rifleman” Person. It didn’t get the same kind of attention as Smith’s pranks routinely do. Then again, that was back in the dark days, before the dawning of the interweb.
The shoelace incident was chronicled by Jack McCallum in his book Unfinished Business: On and Off the Court With the 1990-91 Boston Celtics.
As McCallum tells it, via Deadspin's Billy Haisley:
Bird and Person continued their personal battle. At one point when Bird was out of the game and lying on his towel in front of the bench, he reached over and untied Person’s shoelaces as the Pacer waited for a free throw on the other end.
Somehow, the picture that comes to mind is a little stealthier and ultimately more hilarious than Smith’s overt moves. Unfortunately, there isn’t video evidence of Bird’s clandestine sneaker sabotage. There is, however, some great footage of Bird, Person and the Celtics-Pacers showdown.
The 1990-91 season was a transitional time for the C's, with members of the old guard like Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and a new generation of ballers that included Brian Shaw, Reggie Lewis and Dee Brown.
The Celtics beat the Pacers in the first round, but fell to the Pistons in the semis. As for Bird’s sneak attack, there was no apparent league sanction.