Lance Stephenson’s attempt to throw off LeBron James by blowing in his ear Wednesday night in the Heat-Pacers game was downright creepy. There once was a time when such basketball stunts were mostly confined to Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters yanking down the shorts of an unsuspecting member of the Washington Generals as he attempted a free throw. But trying to get under the skin of an opponent has become an art form, with many instigators discovering that stepping on Superman’s cape can make you look pretty stupid.
Somebody’s gonna shoot J.R.: The NBA fines the Knicks’ J.R. Smith $50,000 for “recurring instances of unsportsmanlike conduct” after he tries to untie the shoelaces of an opponent in January. “It’s unprofessional,” coach Mike Woodson says. “That’s the only word I can use. Or two words.” Don’t blame Woodson for getting flustered. Smith attempted his stunt not in one game, but two, even after being warned to knock it off.
When playing M.J., just shut up 1.0: Jeff Van Gundy makes sense analyzing games on ESPN, but flash back to the 1996-97 season: Van Gundy talks nonsense when he accuses Michael Jordan of gaining an advantage by pretending to be friends with opponents. Jordan’s unfriendly response was dropping 51 on the Knicks. “If he wants to take a page out of Pat Riley’s book, that’s fine,” Jordan says.
When playing M.J., just shut up 2.0: About a week later, then-Seattle coach George Karl questions whether Jordan at age 34 is still tough or whether he’s settling for jump shots. Jordan scores 45 on the Sonics. “I’m not afraid to go anywhere on the court,” he says.
When playing M.J., just shut up 3.0: It’s 1996, and the Vancouver Grizzlies, newcomers to the NBA, are about to upset the Bulls. After Darrick Martin gives Vancouver an eight-point lead with two minutes left, he tells Jordan, “I told you we were going to beat your butts tonight.” Jordan laces his shoes back up, checks into the game and scores nine consecutive points in a victory. “Little man, I told you about talking trash to me,” Jordan tells Martin.
When playing M.J. … didn’t anybody EVER learn? A young Jordan dunks on 6-foot-1 John Stockton. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” a Jazz fan yells. Jordan responds by dunking on 6-11, 240-pound Mel Turpin. Staring back at the fan, Jordan says, “Is he big enough?”
LeBron ends series in Cavalier fashion: During the 2006 playoffs, Washington’s Gilbert Arenas goes to the free-throw line late in OT. James, then with Cleveland, says something to him. Arenas misses both attempts. James makes a 17-foot baseline jumper to clinch the series in six. What did James say? “I told him if he missed both of those free throws, the game was over,” James recalls. Arenas’ account: “If you miss this, you know who’s hitting the game-winner.”
LeBron proves there is one way to best M.J.: Early in these playoffs, James appears to glance toward Charlotte owner Jordan as he drives for a dunk. “Absolutely not,” James insists, although video evidence, and ESPN announcers, testify to the contrary.
X marks the spot: Larry Bird is about the only guy who could get away with walking into the locker room before the NBA’s 3-point contest and asking which one of you guys is going for second place. He once said there was nothing better than telling an opponent he was about to hit the winning shot, then doing it. Flash back to the 1980s, as Seattle’s Xavier McDaniel is about to become one such victim. Bird not only says he’s getting the ball, but points to the exact spot. Then Bird nails it, bemoaning to McDaniel that he left two seconds on the clock. “He wanted to shoot it with zero seconds left on the clock,” McDaniel says. “I walked back to the huddle and I’m like, ‘Damn!’ ”
First tango in WNBA: Diana Taurasi of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury jostles with friend and rival Seimone Augustus of the Minnesota Lynx during last year’s playoffs. They bump chests, get in each other’s face. If they’re going to be that close, Taurasi figures, fine. So she kisses Augustus on the cheek, ringing up YouTube hits by the thousands and drawing comparisons to the Isiah Thomas-Magic Johnson smooch. “We were just trying to make sweet love,” Taurasi says after Minnesota romps. Augustus: “The tango dance that we had, I always say she just wanted some of my deliciousness.”