We're coming to the time of year that produces the two coolest words in sports: Game 7.
And this week, it's a double feature: Sacramento at Minnesota tonight and New Jersey at Detroit on Thursday.
The Super Bowl and the Final Four are both huge national events but the drama doesn't build between two teams the way it does over seven games. The teams don't develop a history with each other over the course of two contentious weeks. The two most irresistible events in sports are heavyweight championship fights and Game 7s.
Cynics who think pros make too much money to really and truly care have never paid attention to Game 7s, whether we're talking about the NBA, NHL or MLB. "They're nerve-racking," future Hall of Famer and Turner Sports analyst Charles Barkley said yesterday. "Guys who say they treat Game 7 as just another game . . . they're lying. Don't believe 'em.
"You can't sleep the night before. It's such a bad loss when you lose a Game 7. I've lost a couple of Game 7s and it's just brutal . . . devastating. I didn't want anybody to be a goat. Having a Bill Buckner kind of situation is bad enough no matter if it occurs in the playoffs . . . but Game 7? It's not that you're scared, it's just complete anxiety. You keep wondering, 'Am I ready? Am I really ready?' "
Barkley's TV tag-team partner, Kenny Smith, was undefeated in Game 7s during his NBA career. "It's a different animal," Smith said.
"One team facing elimination is one thing. But both fighting elimination . . . that's when you see the true character of a team, of the individuals who make up that team. You find out everything when it comes to Game 7. That's when the real fight starts and when you find out who's really coming to play. Did he run? Did he leave you? Or was he right there with you every step of the way."
Larry Brown, who has had to coach Game 7s in Denver, Indiana, Philly and now Detroit, said he actually enjoys them. "Prior to the games," he told Tony Kornheiser and me on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption", "I don't have very much fun at all. I don't want them to go into the game unprepared. . . . I have all sorts of anxiety feelings."
Greg Anthony, an ESPN analyst, was involved in some of the most famous Game 7s in the last dozen years, including two when his Knicks played Michael Jordan's Bulls, one in the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets and another in 2000 when his Trail Blazers blew a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Lakers.
Portland's inability to maintain that lead in the Western Conference finals four years ago allowed the Shaq-Kobe Lakers to stay alive for their first championship, a quarter of tense basketball that perhaps changed the Lakers' history for the next three seasons.
"It was a tough loss," Anthony said. "I mean, really tough. You play it over and over in your mind, every possession, every mistake you made."
So what we've got is a sporting spectacle where players are competing against each other while fighting their own nerves. The 1994 Knicks beat Scottie Pippen's Bulls in seven games, then the Pacers in seven games, then lost a nail-bitter at Houston in Game 7. "Ideally," Anthony said, "you want to not make it different. But it's like playing the final round of a [golf] tournament on Sunday. . . . The pressure is what prevents them from shooting the same scores on Sunday they shot through the first rounds. No question, it's more pressure. That's the beauty of it; it's the only time when both face the pressure of elimination."
Barkley is a Game 7 addict even when the game isn't basketball.
"Having one team so exhilarated and one team so crushed is incredible," he said. "Baseball has some great Game 7s. But to me, the NBA is even more exciting. And there's nothing really like an NHL Game 7 that goes to overtime. It just ends. At least in basketball you've got a certain period of time or free throws at the end or garbage time . . . something. [In] the Stanley Cup, the puck goes in and that's it. It's got to be the most cruel way to lose a game."
Anybody who has ever been in one, regardless of the sport, is certain to talk about calm and poise. Anthony says the teams that survive Game 7s have to have "that calming voice." When he was with the Knicks, that belonged mostly to Coach Pat Riley, though it was a veteran team that included Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, and part of that time, Doc Rivers. Smith, whose Rockets were 4-0 in Game 7s, says, "People say it's the team that wants it most that wins Game 7s, the team that has the most energy. . . . I think it's the exact opposite. I think the team with the coach that has the most chutzpah to make a move, to try something different, to say, 'Let's make a move right here and win this thing' is the team that stands the best chance."
Smith's coach on those back-to-back Rockets championship teams was Rudy Tomjanovich and he did just that in Game 7s, a couple of times going to smaller lineups, once having Smith play the fourth quarter when in the previous six games a kid named Sam Cassell had played the fourth quarters. The Rockets loved that Rudy T. would tinker in a Game 7. They ate it up that he displayed a certain measure of trust he had in them.
Brown, however, said he doesn't like to tinker. "You don't have a lot of time for change . . . you don't want to put too much on your players."
Barkley is from the same school, noting, "If you make a change from what got you to Game 7 and it doesn't work, you look like a fool."
In this space and on this topic, the last word doesn't go to Barkley, Smith, Anthony, or even the incredibly accomplished coach, Larry Brown.
It goes to Red Auerbach, The King of Game 7, the Celtics coach whose record in Game 7s was 8-0. "The secret in Game 7s," he said, "is like the secret in some other games: avoid over-coaching. . . . I said it 40 years ago, 50 years ago: Don't try to get 'em new stuff or change the plan.
"Was I nervous about those games? Well, I was nervous before every game but I'd try not to show it. . . . There were so many of them, I can't remember them all. But I do remember one game with Sam Jones taking a last shot and another with [Frank] Ramsey. We're in the final seconds, either trailing or tied in Game 7, and in each case the ball hit the rim, then the backboard, then the rim, and finally rolled in. And I walked off thinking, 'Boy, I guess that makes me a helluva coach.' "