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Posted: Wednesday May 13, 2009 1:31PM; Updated: Thursday May 14, 2009 1:05PM
Jack McCallum Jack McCallum >

Everything changes when you get to Game 7

Story Highlights

Seven is a magic number in sports, as it was to the Greek Pythagoreans

The Celtics and Bulls and Penguins and Capitals have staged seven-game series

The Red Wings and Ducks and Bruins and Hurricanes have Game 7s tonight

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The Celtics and Bulls staged an epic seven-game series with huge shots and many overtimes.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI

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.

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