Everything changes when you get to Game 7
'Tis the season of Game 7s, a time when the drama of sports is at its peak, when the sound track accompanying our games should feature the stentorian tones of
The poohbahs of sport have tinkered with almost everything over the years, so it is remarkable that championship series have remained at seven games for so long. Seven has been the prevailing World Series number since the 1920s, while NHL and NBA teams have had to win four to get a title since 1939 and 1947, respectively. Yes, there was some grumbling about the postseason going on too long when even some preliminary rounds were expanded to seven games, but not a lot. Seven, after all, is a magic number in sports --as it was to Greek mathematician Pythagoreans who considered it the perfect number since it was a combination of the three-sided triangle (not
And so, with a playoff Game 7 already in the books in two sports -- Penguins over the Caps and Celtics over the Bulls -- the table is set for two more in the NHL over on Thursday night, with two more possible in the NBA. Chances are, memories will be made -- such as drama between hockey's two biggest stars, the Penguins'
"I remember all my Game 7s," says
Game 7s are unique, of course, because of the stakes and the consequent pressure. Sports are always about displaying grace under pressure, but showing that grace in the cauldron of a Game 7 is something else again. The significance of every at bat, every free throw, every power play is magnified.
On April 17, 1971, the night before he was to face the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at hostile Boston Garden,
On April 13, 1957,
On Oct. 13, 1960, as the late afternoon shadows fell across the seventh game of the World Series at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh,
On Nov. 4, 2001, as he stepped into the batter's box at Arizona's Bank One Ballpark-bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, seventh game of the World Series and his Diamondbacks tied 2-2 with the Yankees-
Decades after they've played in a Game 7, players can still vividly recall the pregame anxieties, the game's particulars and the postgame emotions (joy in the case of Dryden, Heinsohn and Gonzalez, who won those Game 7s; despair in the case of Berra, who won four Game 7s but not, alas, that monumental one at Forbes).
Do something heroic in Game 7, as Mazeroski did in 1960, and you're a hero forever. Do something boneheaded -- like knock the puck into your own net, as Edmonton defenseman
There have been likely Game 7 heroes, such as St. Louis Cardinals righthander
And why do seven games a playoff series make? Apart from its significance in Las Vegas, seven, as Mann noted, has a mythical quality. The number is mentioned frequently in scripture ("And He had in His right hand seven stars": Revelations 1:16). The Arabians had seven Holy Temples, the Romans had seven deities, the pirates had Seven Seas, Snow White had Seven Dwarfs, and, most mythically,
Whatever New York Giants owner
Chances are, hockey simply followed baseball's lead when it established the Stanley Cup series at seven games in 1939, and the NBA has also played a seven-game championship series from its inception, in '47. Gradually, hockey and basketball made all playoff series best of seven, the stated rationale being that a seven-gamer minimizes the chance of an inferior team pulling off a flukey upset. In reality the cash register may have been a decisive factor. Even tradition-bound baseball established its league championship series at seven games in 1985, and don't be surprised if its best-of-five first-rounders eventually expand to seven as the NBA's did in 2003. Aside from the wardrobe of the Dallas Mavericks dance team, when is the last time anything in sports has been shrunk?
Berra, who has more Game 7 at bats (25 with only five hits, though three were home runs) than any other player in major league history, swears he was more nervous before his 19 Opening Days as a player than he was before his seven Game 7s. "By the time Game 7 came around," he says, "we had played so many games, it was easier to make that one seem like any other." True Yogi logic. But most others aren't so blase about their Game 7s, like defenseman
Almost every athlete or coach will tell you that he tries to keep his pre-Game 7 routine as normal as possible. "Just like any of the other 600 games I've played in the league, I take a nap, say bye to my kids and head to the rink," says Toronto defenseman
However, trying to ignore the pressure is one thing; acknowledging that it's there, in those frightening private moments before the game, is something else. Former Toronto coach
Dryden says that Game 7s carry such pressure that even the crowd is unnaturally nervous, and that can affect the players. "The crowd's desperate to be loud and energetic," he says, "and if things move along well for the home team, everything's O.K. But if things turn a bit, the silence that can come over a home arena in Game 7 is extremely disquieting. And the players feel it."
In general, Game 7s are played more conservatively, either because a coach or manager directs the game more conservatively or because the tightly wound athletes play it that way (or both). In any case, it's a product of the pressure. "Early on in a Game 7 you have to remind yourself how important every possession is," says Bird. "You have to take care of the ball much better than in a Game 1 or 2. There's so much emotion that turnovers become more important than they usually are." Bird believes that falling behind in a Game 7 is more serious than in any other game. "I always tried to figure out who was hot and get him the ball," he says. "You always try to do that, but even more so in a Game 7, because getting off to a great start is so important."
Although much has been made of momentum going into a Game 7, series clinchers tend to be entities unto themselves. You hear a lot about the rarity of a team coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series in the seventh game; that has happened only nine times in baseball and seven times in basketball. But even teams that forced the clincher by winning Game 6 don't fare that well in Game 7: Their records are 24-20 in baseball, 55-56 in hockey and only 26-59 in basketball.
But what endures in memory about Game 7s are the classic endings, made even more special because of the stages on which they're played out. The drama happens most often in baseball, where the battle between pitcher and batter is so elemental. Mazeroski takes
"I still remember what was going through my mind when Craig [Counsell] got hit by a pitch to load the bases, and I was coming up," says Gonzalez. "I'm thinking, I've dreamed about this situation my whole life. I mean, that's what you do in Wiffle ball, right? Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, Game 7 of the World Series.
"You have to concentrate, but there're so many things going through your mind. [Yankees manager]
Rivera throws a cutter and Gonzalez fouls it straight back. The reliever comes in with another cutter and Gonzalez gets it off the end of the bat toward leftfield. Yankees shortstop
"As I was running to first base, I remember thinking, In my dreams I always hit a home run in that situation, but, man, I am absolutely thrilled with a bloop single," says Gonzalez. "I couldn't believe it was happening to me. I'm a sports fan above all else, and I love watching these situations, and here I am in the center of it.
"When I think back on it now, what I wish is that my family, my friends and all our fans could experience what I experienced in that short time. I wish I could bottle that Game 7 feeling. Because there's nothing like it."