INDIANAPOLIS -- Kevin Ware had long ago left on a stretcher; the gasping of 34,657 fans and the retching and bawling of the few who were too close to the horrific scene of his broken and protruding tibia had long subsided; and in the final minute of Louisville's Elite Eight rout of Duke, while the Cardinals and their fans permitted themselves a few moments of bittersweet joy, their sophomore guard's No. 5 jersey reappeared on the bench.
The one Ware wore when he tumbled to the floor in front of Louisville's bench with 6:33 left in the first half was with him at nearby Methodist Hospital. Ware had gone straight from the court to an ambulance. But Louisville packs backup jerseys for each game, and at halftime, while coach Rick Pitino was delivering an impassioned message about Ware -- "If we don't get him home to Atlanta [near where he attended high school, and the site of the Final Four], it wasn't worth playing this season" -- equipment manager Vinny Tatum had an idea to get some of Ware's spirit back on the floor.
With just over eight minutes left, and the Cardinals' halftime lead of three having ballooned to 16, Tatum sent a manager to the locker room to dig Ware's jersey out of a duffel bag and bring it to the bench. In the final minute it was handed to forward Chane Behanan, who calls Ware his "blood brother" and had been so distraught after the injury that Pitino had to remove him from the game. Behanan removed his own jersey and replaced it with Ware's, and thumped his blood brother's number with his fist as the final seconds counted down. "We did this for Kevin," Behanan said. "I just wanted him to be there."
Lisa Junior watched from Conyers, Ga., as her son's jersey reappeared on CBS. "It looked like Chane was wearing a spandex shirt, he had to pull it on so tight," he said. Her Kevin is a wiry 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, while Behanan is 6-6 and 250. Junior laughed and teared up at the same time. "To see Chane do that?" she said. "It was so touching to know that those guys -- Kevin's brothers -- were thinking of him."
In phone conversations with Junior last week, Ware had expressed so much certainty that the Cardinals would roll through Indianapolis, beating Oregon in the Sweet 16 and Duke in the Elite Eight, that she and his stepfather, Wesley Junior, opted to not to make the trip from Georgia. The NCAA tournament can be a costly grind for parents, and Lisa and Wesley had to work, so they figured they'd wait for their boy to have a homecoming at the Georgia Dome. Ware had been averaging 20 minutes per game off the bench in the NCAA tournament, and was ecstatic, Lisa said, "that he might be a part of a team in the Final Four."
They watched the game with friends in Conyers, for what they figured would be a party. And as they watched Ware's flying close-out at Tyler Thornton's three-pointer with 6:35 left in the first half, and the camera followed the ball go through the net, they saw Ware fall in the periphery, and it didn't seem like a big deal. "At first, we thought that maybe he just sprained his ankle," Wesley said.
Witnessing this as an impartial observer, seated directly across the court from Ware, inspired visceral feelings of horror and panic and nausea. One second you're watching a game that's everything you wanted it to be -- the best two teams left in the bracket, playing within one point of each other, at 21-20, the early makings of a classic -- and the next second you're seeing something you never wanted to in your life: a player seated and staring at the lower half of his right leg in shock, as it was split apart at an impossible angle.
You saw Wyking Jones, one of Louisville's assistants who was seated at eye level with Ware's leg, due to the raised court, leap out of his chair screaming, "NO!" and take steps away from the scene. You saw Behanan grab Thornton's made three out of the net, inbound it, then turn and realize what happened to his friend -- and collapse to the floor. You saw Russ Smith do the same thing and start bawling. You saw, as Luke Hancock said, "the whole crowd turn white."
But you still cannot comprehend the horror of a mother watching it on TV, when CBS opted to show the play again. "When I saw the replay," Lisa said, "I lost it."
And what could a parent do then? Lisa could not run to her boy, could not call his teammates or his coaches on the bench, and CBS eventually cut to a commercial. The image of his leg will stick with her forever, even though she says she'll never watch it again. But the helpless uncertainty was almost worse.
Everyone in the room in Conyers fell silent. Minutes later, Ware's girlfriend, who'd been summoned from the crowd, called from the ambulance to tell them he was hanging in, and shortly thereafter, they were told he had a broken tibia and would require surgery that night. They watched the rest of the game, saw Behanan don the jersey, and waited for more news.
Then Ware called from the hospital, while his teammates were celebrating on the court at Lucas Oil Stadium. He was about to go into a two-hour surgery to have a rod inserted into his leg, and then close up the wound.
And what was the first thing Ware said?
"Calm down, mom. I'm OK."
Lisa figured her son was sedated. But she had been distraught, and Ware's words did have a calming effect. What a son: to call and worry about her, and not himself?
That, right there, was typical Kevin Ware.
Ware did that for his mother, and he did something for his teammates that will go down in Louisville lore, a story about toughness that will be retold so many times he becomes an NCAA tournament legend. He already had a reputation -- "one of the toughest guys I know," backup center Stephan Van Treese called him -- but that was only for refusing to back down in practice, and for battling his way into a star-studded rotation by playing relentless full-court defense.
This was different. Imagine that you're Kevin Ware, and you're staring at part of your tibia, at least until your trainer comes out and gingerly drapes a towel over it, to shield everyone, including you, from the gruesomeness. You're potentially looking at the end of your career -- it will heal, but you don't know that in that moment -- and it's so bad that even your team priest is nauseous, and Pitino says he "literally almost threw up."
What do you do? You're in unbearable pain, and you're being put on a stretcher. But before you leave, you ask Pitino to call over your teammates, who are bawling in various states of disbelief out on the court, keeping their distance because seeing any more might send them over the edge.
"Hey!" Pitino yells to them. "He wants to talk to you."
And what do you say to them, as Smith and Peyton Siva each grasp one of your hands?
"Just go win this game for me. Don't worry about me. I'm fine. Just go win this game."
He was so far from fine. But that, right there, was typical Kevin Ware.
"I don't think we could have gathered ourselves, I know I couldn't have, if Kevin didn't [do that]," Pitino said.
The Cardinals did not really gather themselves right away, though. They finished the half because the game had to go on, because there was a final spot to be filled in the Final Four. But when Smith, who had looked unstoppable while scoring 81 points in Louisville's first three tournament games, inbounded the ball to restart play, he said, "I felt paralyzed."
They played out the next six and a half minutes in a state of numbness -- "I think we were still in such shock," Hancock said -- and somehow took a 35-32 lead into the break. Pitino regrouped them mentally at halftime, telling them that if they let up on their game plan for even one second, "then Kevin Ware doesn't mean how much he means to us."
In the second half, they fused their emotions and their talent, and delivered one of those trademark Louisville runs: The best team in the nation reared its head and outscored Duke 50-31 in the final 20 minutes. Smith finished with 23 points and won the region's Most Outstanding Player Award, by a landslide. The Blue Devils' stars -- Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly -- said they hadn't been bothered too deeply by Ware's injury, because they hadn't seen it up close. What they did see, in full, was the Louisville steamroller, running them over on the way to face Wichita State in Atlanta. Just like Kevin Ware said it would happen.
Louisville left the nets up at Lucas Oil, just as they did at Madison Square Garden after winning the Big East tournament. Ladders stood unused under each basket. They refuse to celebrate in that fashion unless they're doing it at the Georgia Dome.
What Pitino did do, in the postgame melee, was grab a microphone and ask the crowd -- consisting of probably 85 percent red-clad Cardinals fans -- one question:
"For about two minutes, can we all start chanting KEVIN?"
They obliged, and you wished that CBS had not already cut away, so that a certain home in Conyers had been able to hear it. Afterward, in the locker room, Cardinals players told the story of Ware's speech over and over. Behanan said he hadn't cried like that in a long time. "Kevin Ware," Hancock said, "is a soldier."
Louisville is going to Atlanta, but Ware is stuck in Indy's Methodist Hospital until at least Tuesday. He emerged from successful surgery after 10 p.m., and Pitino and Tatum were planning to stay the night with him as he recovered. After interviews were finished, Tatum stood in a back hallway of the arena, waiting for the others to join him. He cradled the Midwest Regional trophy in his right arm and said, "This is going to the hospital." There was something Kevin Ware needed to see.