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 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.