The Most Clutch Players in Sports History

Zack Pumerantz@z_pumerantzAnalyst IIIMarch 14, 2012

The Most Clutch Players in Sports History

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    Any phenomenal athlete can astound an audience with his repertoire of tricks, and cause jaws to drop with his world-class abilities.

    But what a competitor does in the heat of the moment, in pressure situations...well, that's what truly defines a legend.

    From prolific superstars closing out victories in the waning moments, to unexpected veterans inspiring the crowd with one play, these athletes got the job done when it mattered most.

    Let's take a look at the most clutch players in sports history.

    Their hands always remained still.

20. Reggie Miller

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    Now that he's a calm, and often humorous NBA commentator for TNT, we often forget that Reggie Miller was once a villain, at least in the Big Apple.

    Six points in 18 seconds against the Knicks or the game-winning three-pointer with 0.7 seconds to go in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, take your pick.

    The lanky, sweet-shooting sniper (or rather Knick Killer) always hit the big shot, and never missed his free-throw opportunities.

    Just ask Spike Lee.

19. Adam Vinatieri

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    Sure he's the the first kicker ever to win four Super Bowl rings, but it was Adam Vinatieri's confidence in the ferocious tundra that left us in awe.

    It all began in the notorious Tuck Rule Game, when Vinatieri's right leg tied the game and then won it moments later, snow seemingly clouding his teammates' ability to stay relaxed.

    His game-winning kicks in the final seconds of Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII cemented his legacy.

18. Claude Lemieux

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    While he did finish his career as one of only 10 players in history to win the Cup with three different teams, winger Claude Lemieux had the production to back his reputation.

    His 80 career playoff goals are not only ninth-most in NHL history, but showed fans that when the postseason came around, Lemieux turned up the volume of his game.

    Dare it be noted that Lemieux scored more goals during the playoffs than he did during the regular season three separate times.

17. Kirk Gibson

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    Down 4-3 in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, the Dodgers were hanging by a thread without their star outfielder, who had dealt with a stomach virus and leg injuries in the NLCS and was expected to miss the entire series.

    One on, two outs and Tommy Lasorda decided to put Kirk Gibson in as a pinch hitter, despite facing possibly the best team in the Athletics and the best closer in Dennis Eckersley.

    On a 3-2 slider, Gibson turned his hips, took an awkward swing and made history.

    It was the start of the illustrious fist pump.

16. Ronaldo

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    After winning his first Ballon d'Or at 21 years old, it was clear Ronaldo was headed for immortality.

    He became the highest goal scorer in the history of the World Cup with his 15th goal in 2006, is the only player to have won the World Cup Golden Ball and Golden Boot in separate tournaments and has 62 goals in 98 International matches.

    Few could handle the pressure situations like Ronaldo.

15. John Elway

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    For a quarterback who only won two of five Super Bowls he started in, John Elway may not seem like the quintessential pressure-situation athlete, but for those who saw his 98-yard drive to tie the game against the Browns in the 1987 AFC Championship game, clutch perfectly defines the Broncos legend.

    The man's passion and will to win reeked of a certain basketball legend by the name of Michael Jordan.

    Elway's athletic ability and awe-inspiring finishes made every fourth quarter memorable, and no deficit out of reach.

14. Jimmy Connors

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    Sure he won eight Grand Slam singles titles and held the No. 1 ranking for a total of 268 weeks in his career, but it was Jimmy Connors' versatility that defined his greatness.

    He is the only male player to win U.S. Open singles championships on grass, clay and hard courts, and to win 100 singles titles in his career.

    Expect the unexpected from the long-haired stars.

13. Tiger Woods

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    Perhaps it's his 14 professional major golf championships (second to Jack Nicklaus' 18) or his 16 world golf championships that makes Tiger Woods the most established closer of all time.

    With victory on the line, Tiger always came through in hitting the big shot.

    While his recent lack of success and personal issues have seemingly clouded his legacy, the legendary golfer was once the best in regular tournaments before truly turning the steam on for the majors.

    Maybe it was all those nights shooting in the rain.

12. Robert Horry

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    Whether it was his game-winning jumper with 6.5 seconds left in Game 1 of the 1995 Western Conference Finals to give Houston a 94-93 win over San Antonio or his three-pointer with 5.9 seconds left to give the Spurs a 96-95 victory and a 3-2 lead in Game 5 of the 2005 finals, Robert Horry always came through when his team (and there were many) needed him.

    Big Shot Rob won seven championships as a complimentary player, the most of anyone not on the 1960s Boston Celtics.

11. Larry Bird

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    Speaking of the Celtics...

    A fighter with heartbreaking shots and a will to win, Celtics great Larry Bird was always a step above his competition.

    10 triple-doubles in the playoffs is only a small testament to how valuable Larry the Legend was to the Boston area. 

    He is perhaps the most unlikely winner of three championship rings.

10. Zinedine Zidane

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    Don't let his infamous headbutt meltdown fool you, Zinedine Zidane was among the best in crucial situations.

    Perhaps it was his two goals in France's 3-0 win over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final or the volley he precisely hit with his weaker foot in Real Madrid's 2–1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 UEFA Champions League final that has us believing in miracles.

    Marco Materazzi caught him at the wrong time.

9. Bill Russell

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    While his record of 10-0 in Game 7s and his 11 rings are impressive, it was Bill Russell's defensive effort in the 1969 NBA finals against the Lakers that enamored us.

    In Game 7, Russell held Wilt Chamberlain to 18 points and grabbed 21 rebounds of his own.

    It would be the last of many.

8. Reggie Jackson

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    While the moniker Mr. October certainly hints at a clutch nature, it was Reggie Jackson's three consecutive home runs in the clinching game of the 1977 World Series that has us drooling on the keyboard. 

    Oh and by the way, each four-bagger was slugged on the first pitch.

    No need for patience with power like his.

7. Kobe Bryant

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    Whether he's referred to as a Black Mamba or an Assassin, Kobe Bryant always comes through when the purple and gold need him most.

    Five rings may reek of a clutch nature, but it's Kobe's 16 game-winning buckets in his regular-season career in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime that have us statistically confident in his prowess.

    Perhaps the closest MJ clone to date.

6. Eli Manning

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    For those who believed his 2008 run was a fluke, Eli Manning made it quite clear this past season that he's for real.

    21 fourth-quarter comebacks, 25 game-winning drives...the guy just doesn't crush under pressure.

    He may appear stoically-awkward, but the younger Manning brother is building quite the legacy for himself following two memorable Super Bowl runs.

5. Derek Jeter

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    Maybe it's the .309 postseason average or the .351 World Series average that has us admiring Derek Jeter's playoff ability.

    But we believe his postseason records for hits (191), doubles (31), runs scored (107) and total bases (290) better define the legendary shortstop.

    After winning Rookie of the Year and the World Series in 1996, it was clear Jeter was headed for greatness.

4. Joe Montana

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    Amid his 31 career fourth-quarter comeback wins was a cool, calm and collected right arm that remained still in pressure situations.

    Four Super Bowl appearances, four wins for Joe Cool.

    Joe Montana's game-winning passes in the 1982 NFC Championship game (referred to as "The Catch") and Super Bowl XXIII headlined a glorious Hall of Fame career.

3. Patrick Roy

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    Whether it was his 10-straight overtime wins in the 1993 playoffs or the 63 shots he faced in a triple-overtime Game 4 of the 1996 Stanley Cup finals, Patrick Roy continued to prove why he was headed for a spot among the legends of hockey.

    As great as he was in the regular season, Roy was that much better in the playoffs and is the only player in history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy three times.

    Stopping 147 of 151 in the 1996 finals was icing on the cake for the butterfly-style superstar.

2. Michael Jordan

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    With every game-winning shot that Michael Jordan hit in his career came an equally impressive fail. But it seemingly made him that much stronger the next time around, fuel for the fire if you will. 

    Sure he's got the highest career playoff-scoring average (33.45 points per game) and six championship rings, but what made Michael Jordan a legend was his fearless nature.

    Air Jordan always yearned for that last shot.

1. Jesse Owens

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    It's difficult to find any athlete that conquered his surroundings with the same force that Jesse Owens did during the 1936 Olympics.

    Winning four gold medals (one in each competition) against all odds, against a dominating German culture if you will, in front of a fuming Adolf Hitler, was perhaps the greatest individual achievement in sports history.