By Jack McCallum
May 13, 2009

Seven is a good handy figure in its way, picturesque, with a savor of the mythical.--Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

'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 John Facenda. And so the stage is set for an epic Game 7. For one team, there will be glorious victory; for the other, there will be no tomorrow. Tell it, John.

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 Phil Jackson's offense) and the four-sided square -- and there just seems something too abbreviated about best-of-five. And let's not even talk about best-of-nine.

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' Sidney Crosby and the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin, and heroes (and goats) will be born. No less an immortal than Larry Bird, who won six of his eight Game 7s with the Boston Celtics, once said: "I remember every one of my Game 7s. Hell, if you don't remember them, what do you remember?"

"I remember all my Game 7s," says Larry Bird, who won six of the eight in which he played for the Boston Celtics. "Hell, if you don't remember them, what do you remember?"

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, Ken Dryden, a 23-year-old rookie goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, turned on the television in his hotel room. "The only thing I could find was The Bruins Week in Review or whatever it was called," says Dryden, now president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "All they kept showing was the Bruins' scoring goal after goal. Esposito scores! Orr scores! Esposito scores again! I was already nervous, and I turned downright depressed. I went to bed and dreamed about all those goals."

On April 13, 1957, Tommy Heinsohn watched in distress as fellow Boston Celtics rookie Bill Russell crashed into the support behind the basket after missing a layup off a fast-break pass by Bob Cousy. It happened at Boston Garden during a key moment in the second overtime of the Game 7 championship final against the St. Louis Hawks. "Russ was traveling so fast, he couldn't stop himself to get a good shot," says Heinsohn. The ball bounded out past the foul line and the Hawks began a fast break. "Suddenly I saw this blur go by me," says Heinsohn. "I was running, but Russ went by like I was standing still. [Hawks forward] Jack Coleman went up for a shot and Russ blocked it from behind. After having been tangled up in the basket support!"

On Oct. 13, 1960, as the late afternoon shadows fell across the seventh game of the World Series at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Yogi Berra, a 35-year-old New York Yankees veteran, backpedaled in leftfield as he traced a fly ball hit by the Pirates' Bill Mazeroski. "I didn't think it was going to make it out," says Berra. "I turned around to get the carom off the wall. But the ball grazed the vines and made it over. To this day I don't know how." Berra laughs ruefully. "But it made it."

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-Luis Gonzalez, a 34-year-old, power-hitting leftfielder, suddenly felt the weight. "I felt the weight of the city, of my teammates, of my family, the weight, in a way, of all of baseball," says Gonzalez, now in his 15th major league season. "I mean, the weight of that situation in a Game 7.... If you let it, it can just crush you. It's like nothing you feel at any other time."

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 Steve Smith did in a 3-2 loss to Calgary in Game 7 of the '86 Smythe Division finals -- and you're boneheaded for eternity.

There have been likely Game 7 heroes, such as St. Louis Cardinals righthander Bob Gibson (the only man to pitch three complete Game 7s, two of which he won) and Boston Celtics center Bill Russell (undefeated in 10 Game 7s). Even more compelling, though, have been the unlikely Game 7 heroes. Like Gene Guarilia, a Boston Celtics reserve who replaced a flu-ridden Heinsohn in Game 7 of the '62 championship final against the Los Angeles Lakers and played like an all-star. Or Dryden, who, after starting only six regular-season games, won two playoff Game 7s as a rookie. Or Toronto defenseman Bob Baun, who suffered a broken left ankle from a Gordie Howe slap shot in Game 6 of the '64 Stanley Cup final, but didn't miss a shift in the Maple Leafs' 4-0 Game 7 victory.

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, Gilligan's Island had seven castaways.

Whatever New York Giants owner John Brush had on his mind (it wasn't Gilligan) when he established the World Series format at seven games, in 1905, is lost to history. The first World Series, in 1903, was actually nine games (there was no Series played in '04) before the Brush format took hold. It was followed through 1918, at which point the owners apparently got greedy -- imagine that! -- and went back to nine games. That was an unfortunate decision since the infamous 1919 Black Sox Series shouldn't have been any longer than was absolutely necessary. The nine-game format was played for three years, then the series was returned permanently to seven.

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 Ken Daneyko, who retired in 2003 after 20 seasons with the New Jersey Devils. At a team dinner the night before Game 7 of the '03 Stanley Cup final against Anaheim, New Jersey coach Pat Burns tapped the 39-year-old Daneyko on the shoulder and whispered, "I'm going to use you tomorrow." Daneyko had been a healthy scratch in the previous six games, but he had played in 11 Game 7s. So how did he take the news? "My heart went in my throat, I had goose bumps, I felt like a rookie and, I swear, I had tears in my eyes," says Daneyko. "I called my wife and said, 'I don't know whether I can do this. I think they're taking a chance using me.'" Fortunately his wife, JonnaLyn, talked him off the ledge. "She told me, 'You've played in as many Game 7s as anybody,'" says Daneyko. "This is meant to be.'" Sure enough, he performed well in the Devils' 3-0 victory.

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 Ken Klee, recalling his preparation for a Game 7 against Ottawa in 2004. "It's about keeping your emotions in check and preparing to do your job."

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 Pat Quinn, who has a 4-4 record in Game 7s, admits that he has "a fear of failure" before every Game 7. "You try all season to set high standards and high goals for your team, and suddenly you're in a situation where all your dreams and hard work could go down the drain if you don't win," says Quinn. "Then you start thinking about the end result, instead of what you have to do."

Danny Ainge, the Celtics' director of basketball operations and general manager, participated in nine Game 7s as a player and says he always made a conscious decision to turn the situation into fun. "If you don't," he said, "you can just shrivel up." To that end, before Game 7 of the '84 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Ainge swiped a stethoscope from the team doctor and dashed around the Celtics' Boston Garden locker room, placing it on the chest of various teammates. "Let's see how nervous you are," he said to Kevin McHale. "You got a heartbeat?" he said to Cedric Maxwell. "It was a tension-breaker," says Ainge, "but I'm not sure everybody thought it was funny."

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 Ralph Terry over the wall as the Pirates beat the Yankees in '60. Gene Larkin singles home Dan Gladden as the Minnesota Twins beat the Atlanta Braves in '91. Edgar Renteria singles for the Florida Marlins in the 11th inning of their Game 7 with the Cleveland Indians in '97, driving home Craig Counsell with the winning run. And Luis Gonzalez... well, let him tell you.

"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] Joe Torre decides to draw the infield in. O.K., what does that mean? [Yankees reliever] Mariano Rivera had struck me out the inning before. What adjustments should I make? Then those thoughts, what you should be thinking about, are pushed out by things you shouldn't be thinking about. 'I have a chance to be the hero, but I also have the chance to be the goat. Where in this city will I hide if I strike out? What is my family thinking down in Florida? I know they're all watching. Are they as nervous as I am? I can feel my friends and my teammates pulling for me. What if I let them down? This isn't a Game 1 or Game 2 where you still have time. This is Game 7!'"

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 Derek Jeter goes back, but the ball falls safely; had Jeter not been drawn in, he probably would've caught it.

"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."

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