The Masked Assassin. One-Eyed Charlie. The Terminator.
Call Mike Conley whatever nickname you prefer.
The injured point guard’s gritty performance led the Memphis Grizzlies to a 97-90 win in Game 2 over the Golden State Warriors and earned him instant respect from players, coaches and fans across the country. It also evoked memories of some of the most courageous showings in sports history.
Just eight days after having surgery to repair multiple facial fractures, a puffy-faced Conley scored 22 points in 27 minutes to help the Grizzlies even the second-round series at one apiece. Game 3 is Saturday in Memphis, where Conley will wear a plastic mask over his swollen face and red left eye again.
“He’s a warrior,” Grizzlies veteran Tony Allen said. “The all-heart part is there.”
Conley’s comeback already has gone down as one of the most memorable performances in Grizzlies history. Just where does it rank across the all-time sports landscape?
Well, Conley has a lot of competition. In fact, he might not even own the most impressive performance of these playoffs after Chris Paul played through a strained left hamstring to carry the Clippers to a thrilling Game 7 win over the defending champion Spurs in the first round last Saturday night.
Here are some of the grittiest performance in sports history:
THE FLU GAME: It’s the most legendary game in Michael Jordan’s legendary career. The debate rages about whether he was ill due to influenza, food poisoning or other reasons, but this much is clear: Air Jordan looked super sick in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Chicago was tied 2-2 with Utah. Jordan ignored the advice of trainers to sit out, shaking off the sickness to score 38 points, including a huge 3-pointer in the final minute, and the Bulls beat the Jazz 90-88. The Bulls finished off the Jazz in Game 6 for Jordan’s fifth title.
TOUGH JACK: The NFL’s original Ironman, Jack Youngblood did something in 1979 few would even consider in the lucrative league now: go through the playoffs on a broken leg. Youngblood played 201 straight games over 14 seasons, with the biggest hurdle coming when he fractured his left fibula in the Los Angeles Rams’ divisional-round win over the Cowboys. He put a plastic cast over his leg for the NFC championship against Tampa Bay and again in a loss to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
TIGER’S TRIUMPH: Tiger Woods underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee two months before the 2008 U.S. Open and fractured his left tibia in two places during rehabilitation. He still showed up at Torrey Pines, grimacing after drives, hobbling around the course and using his club as a walking stick. Woods rolled in a dramatic 12-foot birdie to force an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate, winning the following day on the 91st hole. Woods missed the rest of the season after having surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He hasn’t won a major since.
GIBSON’S WALK-OFF: Kirk Gibson injured both legs during the 1988 NL Championship Series, and nobody expected him to play in the World Series a few days later. But the NL MVP surprisingly stepped to the plate with the Dodgers down a run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 1, hitting a two-run homer off Dennis Eckersley to lift Los Angeles to a stunning 5-4 win over Oakland. Gibson limping around the bases and pumping his right arm is still one of the most iconic moments in baseball history, especially paired with Jack Buck’s famous call: “I don’t believe what I just saw!”
LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: Also among the most famous grind-it-out performances: Steve Yzerman skating through the 2002 Stanley Cup finals for Detroit with a torn right knee; Willis Reed coming out of the tunnel at Madison Square Garden and hitting a pair of shots in the opening minutes of the Knicks’ Game 7 win in the 1970 NBA Finals despite a torn muscle in his right thigh;
Muhammad Ali fighting through a broken jaw in a losing decision to Ken Norton; Curt Schilling pitching with a bloody sock over his injured right ankle in Game 6 of the 2004 AL Championship Series; and Isiah Thomas turning in 43 points, eight assists and six steals on a severely sprained ankle in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Lakers, who went on to win the game and the series over Detroit.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
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