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.
Indeed, there is nothing in sports as fraught with tension and
as memorable to its participants as the decisive game of a
postseason series. "Right now is the time we all dreamed about:
Game 7," said Chris Webber after a 104-87 win on Sunday earned
his Sacramento Kings a one-game showdown, scheduled for
Wednesday, against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The spring had already yielded four early Game 7s, as welcome to
the sporting landscape as early-blooming daffodils to the home
gardener, when three NHL first-rounders went the distance. And as
of Monday, both the Eastern (Tampa Bay-Philadelphia) and Western
(San Jose-Calgary) Conference finals had the chance of maxing
out. In the NBA, meanwhile, Detroit, like Sacramento, earned a
Game 7 opportunity in a conference semifinal with a Game 6 win on
Sunday; the Pistons beat the New Jersey Nets 81-75 to set up an
Eastern Game 7 on Thursday. Their opponents in the final, either
the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat, were scheduled to lock up
in a Game 6 on Tuesday (after SI's press time), with the Pacers
ahead 3-2 and the Heat trying to advance to its second Game 7 of
the spring (having beaten the New Orleans Hornets in the ultimate
game of the opening round).
May 23, 2004
Game 7s have such a hold on our collective imagination that many
memorable postseason moments are assumed to have happened in a
Game 7, when in reality they didn't. It's a safe bet that, years
from now, Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher will be hearing,
"I remember your shot, D-Fish. Game 7 against the Spurs, baby."
The same thing will happen to Brian Scalabrine of the New Jersey
Nets, whose heroic moments in a three-year career have, to date,
been few and far between. "Yo, Veal Scalabrine," they'll say, "I
remember that Game 7 against the Pistons. Seventeen points. Man,
they should've played you more."
Both men were actually heroes of Game 5s, but the drama was so
intense that those games seemed like series enders. Fisher's
turnaround heave with 0.4 seconds left on the clock--T-shirts
bearing the inscription 0.4 are being worn around L.A. these
days--gave the Lakers a 74-73 victory over San Antonio on May 13
and the momentum necessary to clinch the series against the
defending champs with an 88-76 win two nights later at the
Staples Center. And Scalabrine's all-around play (he was "the
MVP, hands down," Nets forward Richard Jefferson said) was the
catalyst in the Nets' 127-120, triple overtime marathon win over
the Pistons on Friday night.
Ah, but fame is transitory: Except for two personal fouls and one
steal, Scalabrine put up a line of zeros in 10 minutes of play in
Sunday's Game 6 loss. Still, the Nets' fan favorite had a chance
to redeem himself on Thursday night, when something special was
bound to happen to someone.
"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
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
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
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
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 Greek Pythagoreans considered 7 the perfect number,
being a combination of 3 and 4, the triangle and the square--the
perfect figures. 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 the April 20 Game 7 against
Ottawa. "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. 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,
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
"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
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."
For more NBA and NHL Game 7 playoff lore, including players who
have been involved in the most series clinchers, go to si.com.
THE GLORIES OF THE ULTIMATE GAME
'39 | Bruins BEAT Rangers
'52 | Yankees BEAT Dodgers
'60 | Pirates BEAT Yankees
'64 | Cardinals BEAT Yankees
'65 | Celtics BEAT Sixers
'69 | Celtics BEAT Lakers
'79 | Canadiens BEAT Bruins
'82 | Sixers BEAT Celtics
'84 | Celtics BEAT Lakers
'87 | Islanders BEAT Capitals
'87 | Celtics BEAT Bucks
'90 | Blazers BEAT Spurs
'92 | Braves BEAT Pirates
'94 | Rangers BEAT Canucks
'97 | Marlins BEAT Indians
'99 | Stars BEAT Avalanche
'01 | Avalanche BEAT Devils
'01 | Diamondbacks BEAT Yankees
'03 | Yankees BEAT Red Sox
'04 | Maple Leafs BEAT Senators
HOME IS WHERE THE EDGE IS
Of the 240 playoff series that went the distance in the NBA, the
NHL and major league baseball through 2003, the home team won
67.9% of the deciding games, nowhere more consistently than those
in pro basketball.
BASEBALL HOCKEY BASKETBALL
Total best-of-seven series 131 471 303
Series requiring seven games 44 (34%) 111 (24%) 85 (28%)
Game 7 wins by home team 23 (52%) 70 (63%) 70 (82%)