Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Playoffs Gutsiest Performances

Over the weekend we saw the Boston Celtics Rajon Rondo suffer a gruesome dislocated elbow only to come back and finish the game, including adding several buckets.  While the next game for Rondo, back with a large pad on his elbow, didn't go so well as the Heat went up 3-1 in the series.  Had the Celtics won the series it would have been one of the gutsiest performances in playoff history.  Now it may well be a side note compared to these four.

Sports stars are set apart from the rest of us by their ability to overcome pain in important situations.  While we all go through this at times in our lives, they are put in the national spotlight at the times of their weakest.  Whether we know anything is wrong or it's revealed to us later, their ability to overcome otherwise debilitating injuries makes their performances memorable.  For these four players, the championships that resulted from their gutting it out make them the most memorable.

Willis Reed
It was Game 7.  The Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks were tangled in an NBA Finals for the ages.  The Lakers had momentum on their side, winning Game 6 by a healthy margin 135-113.  A torn thigh muscle suffered in Game 5 had kept Knicks star Willis Reed out of the last game and no one expected to see him the rest of the season.  Until the warm ups began.  Slowly the crowd rose as Reed limped out onto the court at Madison Square Garden for warm ups, much to the shock of every Laker.

His impact was quickly felt as Reed scored the first two buckets of the game.  His scores helped send the MSG crowd into a fervor.  While Reed came out shortly after, his leg injury too much him, the damage was already done.  Reed coming out and taking over the first part of the game was enough to shake the Lakers and put them on their heels where they remained the rest of the game.  The Knicks won Game 7 113-99.  The Knicks won their first NBA title.

Bob Gibson
He led the Dodgers in the regular season with 25 home runs.  On a team without much offensive flair that relied heavily on their arms to get the job done, his pop was missed.  Not only had a stomach bug sidelined Kirk Gibson the day of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, but two bad knees and a bruised hamstring made it impossible to take batting practice pre-game.  According to Bob Costas every swing of the bat brought about highly audible grunts of pain from Gibson.

The Dodgers were down and it looked to be for the count.  Down 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th, the Athletics had their closer Dennis Eckersley in.  He was the AL's leader in saves with 45 in the regular season when up limped Kirk Gibson to the plate, inserted as a pinch hitter to everyone's surprise.  With a man on Gibson was brought in to end the game.  After running the count to 3-2, Eckersley let loose a back door slider that Gibson gently reached out and powered over the fence using only his upper body, foregoing his injured lower body and causing Dodgers announcer Vin Scully to famously proclaim, "I can't believe what I just saw!"  The 5-4 Dodgers win in Game 1 powered Los Angeles to the 4-1 World Series win.

Terrell Davis
They bothered him his whole life.  The incessant pounding of the head, the blurred vision, the sensitivity to light.  They would strike at any time.  Here he was in the biggest game of his life, Super Bowl XXXII, and another migraine was attacking the head of Terrell Davis when he was needed the most.  The Green Bay Packers were pushing hard and his legs, his game changing legs, were requested but his vision was gone as the pounding began.

With the second quarter being watched as a spectator, he hoped and prayed that the symptoms would fade.  His one play, as a decoy, helped set up a John Elway rushing touchdown but he couldn't see anything.  He did his best to contribute while his head pounded and his team struggled to stay ahead by a scant field goal.  It wasn't until after the second quarter and the half time show were over that the symptoms slowly began to fade.  Davis sucked it up, however, and came back into the game.  His pounding head didn't stop him from rushing for 157 yards, scoring three touchdowns, and winning MVP.

Steve Yzerman
Every time he stepped the bone would touch the bone.  He found it hard to even walk around the rink pre-game.  The aging Steve Yzerman had intense pain as his right knee was deteriorated to nothing.  No cartilage left, but there was work to be done.  It was the post season and he was the Captain.  He had to come through for his team, as he had every year since he was drafted in 1984.  The knee was so bad he would have to have an osteotomy when the season was over, but he took the injections every day just so he could skate.

His sacrifice, for his future and his ability to run in the future, would ultimately pay off.  Through 23 games in the 2002 Playoffs (series against the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Carolina Hurricanes) he was more than just a body in the line up.  Through the Finals he was responsible for six goals and seventeen assists.  On one knee Steve Yzerman averaged a point per game.  It all came to a head in Game 5 of the Finals where he assisted on the final two goals scored by the Red Wings.  With one knee he still found the strength to lift the 30 lbs of trophy over his head for the last time as a player.

There have been other great gusty performances that deserve mention here: Tiger Woods winning the 2008 US Open in a playoff with Rocco Mediate on a torn ACL, Kerri Strug helping the US to gold in 1996 despite a broken ankle, Lance Armstrong winning the 2003 Tour de France with a broken collar bone, Michael Jordan scoring 38 points in the Finals against the Utah Jazz despite an awful flu keeping him bedridden, Curt Schilling pitching on one good ankle and one surgically repaired ankle to help beat the Yankees when down 3-0 in the series.  Then there's perhaps the gutsiest of all.

Bob Baun
In the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals the Toronto Maple Leafs were down 3-2 in the series against the Detroit Red Wings.  The game was tied 3-3 in the third when the Leafs' Bob Baun blocked a shot from Red Wings legend Gordie Howe.  It nearly shattered Baun's ankle and he was helped off of the ice.  He was undaunted by this minor set back.  He had it tapped up, tied his skate extra tight and went on to score the overtime winner.  After that the Leafs would win Game 7 and the Stanley Cup.

Should the Celtics do the improbable and come back to the beat the Heat from down 3-1, then go on to the win the NBA title this year perhaps Rajon Rondo's incredible come back from a dislocated elbow will rank amongst these players in the history of gutsy performances.  Until then he will be but a footnote that is remembered with the almost was and could  have beens.  For the players above their injuries and over coming made them well known.  Their championships made them legends.
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