Down three in the final seconds of Game 5 during the Western Conference semifinals, James Harden juked left and then went right, burning past Manu Ginobili and then pulling up for the open three—and he got stuffed. Ginobili’s hand came from behind him like the Angel of Death. Game over.
Clutch like the block LeBron James pulled off in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals. Cleveland was tied with Golden State 89-89 with under two minutes left. Andre Iguodala rose up for an open fast-break layup—and LeBron came soaring in behind him, like the Angel of Death on a dragon. Layup destroyed.
And clutch like what LeBron’s teammate Kyrie Irving did less than a minute later, hitting a three over Steph Curry to take the lead—and they never gave it back. Championship.
Then last week, during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, LeBron was forced to the bench with four fouls and just 10 points midway through the second quarter. Cleveland quickly fell behind by 16—and then LeBron finished with a superb 34, though that somehow paled in comparison to Kyrie’s comeback. Uncle Drew dropped 21 points in the third quarter and 42 for the game, bringing the Cavs back to win.
We all know Clutch.
Michael Jordan in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, dropping 38 points, including a game-winning three-pointer, while sick with the flu (or food poisoning, or…whatever).
Tom Brady and the Patriots falling behind the Falcons 28-3 in this year’s Super Bowl, and then Brady finishing with an SB-record 466 yards passing and leading the Pats to the biggest Super Bowl comeback win football’s ever seen.
Conor McGregor saying he’d knock out Jose Aldo—and then knocking him out in 13 seconds.
We can recognize these moments for what they are when they happen, each of them transcendent, Hollywood.
What we can’t do, though, is grasp how and why they happen. The best we can do is resort to hyperbole, such as LeBron’s describing Kyrie’s 42-point performance as though he’d achieved some sort of mythic destiny, saying, “He was born for these moments.”
We try to make sense of Clutch and determine what elevates one athlete over another by stacking stats upon stats and weighing them against each other, and by arguing about intangible qualities like “clutch genes” and “killer instincts.” The debate over LeBron’s clutchness haunted him for the better part of a decade until that Iguodala block and the championship it helped him finally bring to his hometown. (And yet even now, people debate whether he or Kyrie is “more clutch.”)
What if we could literally see inside their heads, though? What, then, would it show us? What are the literal, physical things that make them Clutch?
To answer that question, we have to answer another one first: What is Clutch?
You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon before: There is the rare condition of “ice in the veins,” when one is born with literal ice cells along with their red blood cells and everything else in their blood.
Just kidding. That’s not true at all.
But there is a literal, physical answer. The short of it is something so beautiful—so downright poetic—that even the most meticulous, clinical men and women of the scientific cloth are compelled to invoke the supernatural. Psychologist Dr. Dan Chartier in Raleigh, North Carolina, says, “It is magic.”
We can understand the magic, but first we have to understand some other things.