Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning: these names are synonymous with individual greatness and consistent MVP-worthy performances. Sometimes, predicting who will be the most valuable player is easy and the choice can appear to be a foregone conclusion. But the ones who comprise this list were never supposed to be at the top (at least when they won their award). Some of them would go on to legendary careers and have their names enshrined in their sport’s respective Hall of Fame. Others would be one-hit wonders. In each case, almost no one could have foreseen them shining through at the perfect moment, if even for the briefest of moments.
This list considers only the MVP awards for the four major North American sports leagues during the playoffs: Super Bowl MVP for football, World Series MVP & the Babe Ruth Award for baseball, the Conn Smythe Trophy for Hockey and the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award for basketball. Regular season stats determine the playoffs; but the playoffs determine the athletic heroes.
The great Muhammad Ali once declared, “Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them- a desire, a dream, a vision.” The lesser-known Anson Dorrance, an American female soccer coach, stated that, “The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.” Both of them are making the same point with different words. A real champion is one whose work is done almost exclusively away from the spotlight so that when they are bathed in the warm limelight, they know they truly deserve it.
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15 Jake Scott, Miami Dolphins: Super Bowl VII
The Miami Dolphins pulled off the only perfect season in NFL history in 1972, going 17-0, but that unlikely feat is topped by their Super Bowl MVP of that year, Jake Scott. Scott’s two interceptions, including a pivotal pick in the fourth quarter, helped Miami defeat the Redskins 14-7 in a purely defensive standoff and propel the Dolphins to perfection. Scott’s play on the football field was impressive, but his off-the-field exploits were the stuff of legends. In 1968, his college coach was so fed up with his antics that he suspended Scott before the season. Scott’s teammates eventually helped reinstate him and Scott would go on to help them win the SEC Championship with an MVP performance. Indeed, while playing college ball at Georgia, Scott (allegedly) gunned his motorcycle up a ramp and over the top of the campus’ basketball arena, a story the MVP has never refuted. It’s a miracle Scott even survived to see Superbowl VII.
14 Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets: 1994
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon had an extraordinary 18-year career in the NBA, but no stretch was more special than the 1993-94 season when he became the first player in history to be awarded regular season MVP, playoff MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Award in the same year. A year later, one of his main rivals, David Robinson of the Spurs, was asked how to solve Hakeem and Robinson responded quite simply that “You don’t solve Hakeem.” In 2008, Olajuwon was inducted into the Hall of Fame; fitting for a man whose name literally translates to “always being on top.”
13 13: Luis Tiant, Boston Red Sox: 1975
El Tiante, as he was warmly dubbed by the Fenway faithful, was a Cuban national and the first and only winner of the Babe Ruth Award from a team that did not win the World Series. The right-handed pitcher finished with a career ERA of 3.30 and had 229 total wins, including four seasons with twenty or more wins. He led the league in shutouts three times and while he has yet to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he does have his own line of Cuban cigars (just in time for the recent lifting of the Cuban embargo).
12 Bob Gainey, Montreal Canadiens: 1979
Bob Gainey was never the flashiest player on the star-studded Montreal Canadiens, but he was certainly invaluable in many of their playoff runs. In no year was this more evident than in 1979, when the Habs won their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup and Gainey won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Gainey was renowned for his shutdown ability and physical prowess, but his scoring ability shone through that year when he recorded 16 points. His defensive abilities still remained his strong suit and Gainey was awarded the Selke Trophy for top defensive forward the first four years it was awarded.
11 Desmond Howard, Green Bay Packers: Super Bowl XXXI
Howard cracks this list for his performance as a return specialist, not exactly the most likely position in football to win MVP. In 1996, the year his Packers defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Howard led the league in, punt return touchdowns, punt return yardage and average yards per return. In the Super Bowl, with the Packers leading by just six points and the Patriots gaining all the momentum, Howard took destiny in his hands and galloped 99 yards on the most important kickoff return TD of his career. Pats head coach Bill Parcells conceded that, "We had a lot of momentum, and our defense was playing better. But [Howard] made the big play. That return was the game right there. He's been great all year, and he was great again today.”
10 10: Paul Molitor, Toronto Blue Jays: 1993
Paul Molitor, affectionately known as “Molly” and “The Ignitor”, was a central component to the Toronto Blue Jays’ second consecutive World Series’ Title in 1993, but he was never even supposed to be there in the first place. Molitor wanted to stay with his beloved Milwaukee Brewers, but sold out when the reigning champion Jays offered him a significantly more substantial contract during the off-season.
That year Molitor had an impressive .332 average and 111 RBIs, but he exploded in the World Series. Molitor had two home runs in six games and batted an incredible .500 at the plate; recording hits on 12 of 24 appearances. Joe Carter is the name most synonymous with the Blue Jays' 1993 triumph, but it was Molitor that made a championship possible.
9 Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Anaheim Mighty Ducks: 2003
J.S. Giguere’s playoff debut foreshadowed the incredible cup run he was about to embark on. In the Ducks’ 2-1 triple overtime victory over the high-powered Red Wings, Giguere set an NHL record with 63 saves. Even more astonishing is Giguere’s playoff OT shutout streak, which stands at 168:27. With that in mind, maybe the Avalanche should've played Giguere in overtime of Game 7 last year against Minnesota.
In the Western Conference Finals, Giguere would hold the Minnesota Wild to a single goal for the entire series, setting another playoff record. The Ducks would eventually lose in seven games to New Jersey in the Stanley Cup final and Giguere would become the fifth player in NHL history to garner MVP honours from a losing team.
8 Bobby Richardson, New York Yankees: 1960
Bobby Richardson is the only World Series MVP to be selected from a losing team and was the first non-pitcher to garner the award. Richardson was an average regular season performer, but he would turn it on in October when it mattered most. Richardson had a .266 batting average and a .299 on-base percentage during the regular season, but in his World Series career, batted an impressive .305 with a .331 OBP. These stats are unsurprising when you consider that Richardson played in 36 World Series contests, including an incredible 30 consecutive games from 1960-1965. He stills holds the record for most RBIs in a single World Series game at six. The slugger was awarded a brand new corvette for his MVP performance, but the practical and humble Richardson eventually traded it in for station wagon.
7 Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers: 1969
Jerry West came from humble origins, but went on to become the only player from a losing team in NBA history to be awarded the finals MVP. He was almost universally respected and loved, even by his opponents, who admired his sheer drive, grit and determination. Following the Lakers’ heartrending loss to their archrival Boston in 1969, Celtics’ head coach walked over to the devastated West, put his arm around him and said, “Jerry, I love you.” Such outright and uncommon sentimentality, especially in the hyper-masculine world of sports, underscores the love many friends and foes alike felt for Jerry West.
6 6: Chuck Howley, Dallas Cowboys: Super Bowl V
Chuck Howley was the first defender and also the first member of a losing team to be awarded MVP in what has become known as “The Blunder Bowl”. During that horrific, but memorable fifth Super Bowl, Howley’s Cowboys committed 10 penalties and Baltimore tallied up a stunning seven turnovers and yet still managed to win on a last-second field goal. Howley had two interceptions, including a pick in the end zone that prevented the Colts from tying the game. However, it must be noted that the game occurred before sacks and tackles were recorded so we’ll never truly know just how great Howley was in this game. Indeed, he remains the only MVP from a losing team.
5 Brian Leetch, New York Rangers: 1994
Not many Stanley Cup MVPs hail from deep in the heart of Texas, but Brian Leetch was born in Corpus Christi and was the first non-Canadian to win the Conn Smythe award. Leetch remained the only American to win the award until Tim Thomas garnered the honours in 2011. Leetch was an integral part of ending the Rangers’ 54-year championship drought, finishing with stunning statistics for a defenceman-- 11 goals, 23 assists and just six penalty minutes in 23 games. The defenceman actually outscored every forward in the playoffs that year. Everything is, indeed, bigger in Texas, even hockey stats sometimes.
4 4: Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers: 1980
Magic Johnson’s tumultuous life off of the basketball court may be what he is most remembered for by some; but truly passionate basketball fans will never forget his exploits on the court during his rookie season. The young Magic led the Lakers to the Finals that year, putting up impressive numbers throughout, despite his inexperience. He averaged almost a triple double each game with 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 9.4 assists and 3.1 steals, all while shooting over 50% from the field. Nobody could've guessed at that time that Magic would put up those numbers in his rookie year.
3 Dick Green, Oakland Athletics: 1974
Dick Green was surely one of the unlikeliest recipients of the Babe Ruth award. In 1974, coming off a series of injuries, Green only played in 100 regular seasons games for the Oakland Athletics. Shockingly, in the World Series that year, Green didn’t record a single hit and yet was still awarded MVP for his incredible defensive play. Green was involved in six double plays in the Athletics’ victory over the Dodgers. The A’s first baseman Steve Garvey described Green as “[making] big plays in the key situations… the kind that take us right out of big possible innings.” Offense gets the hits but defense wins championships.
2 Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes: 2006
In 2006, rookie goaltender Cam Ward was never supposed to see the ice during the playoffs. However, when Martin Gerber stunk out the joint against the underdog Canadiens, putting the Canes down 2-0 in the series, Peter Laviolette turned to the 20-year-old to shift the tide of the series. Ward stepped in and never looked back, leading Carolina to the Cup while posting an impressive 15-8 record. Ward joined an exclusive club, becoming the first rookie goaltender to win the Cup since the renowned Patrick Roy in 1986, posting a remarkable .920 save percentage and 2.14 goals against average. Hurricanes Captain Rod Brind’Amour summed up his teammates feelings by stating that, “Goaltending wins you championships… We got to raise the Cup because of that kid.”
1 Joe Namath, New York Jets: Super Bowl III
Before there was the modern day NFL, there were two leagues that competed for the Super Bowl: the NFL and the AFL (American Football League), which was absolutely ridiculed by the NFL. And in 1968, the NFL’s Baltimore Colts were predicted to absolutely demolish Joe Namath and the AFL’s New York Jets. Many sports writers at the time contended that it would be several years before any AFL team could be competitive with an NFL team and one NFL superstar even claimed that Super Bowl III would be Namath’s “first professional football game.” While no one at the time would have even predicted a Jets’ victory, the brash Namath famously “guaranteed” a victory against the Colts, who were then referred to as “the greatest team in history.” The AFL gained some much-needed legitimacy and Broadway Joe’s bold prediction became legendary (and likely swayed MVP voting).
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