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 bone-headed 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 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 blas� 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.