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 right tibia had subsided. And in the final minute of Louisville's 85--63, Elite Eight rout of Duke on Sunday, while the Cardinals and their fans permitted themselves a few moments of bittersweet joy, the sophomore guard's number 5 jersey reappeared.
This is an article from the April 8, 2013 issue
It wasn't the one Ware had on when he tumbled to the floor in front of the Louisville bench with 6:33 left in the first half in Indianapolis. That was at Methodist Hospital, where Ware had gone straight from the court in an ambulance. But the Cardinals pack 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 in Lucas Oil Stadium.
With just over eight minutes left, and the Cards' three-point halftime lead 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 last minute it was handed to sophomore 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 for several minutes. Behanan took off 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."
Ware's mother, 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," she said. Her Kevin is a wiry 6'2" 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 Indy, beating Oregon in the Sweet 16 then Duke in the Midwest Regional, that she and his stepfather, Wesley Junior, chose not to make the trip. The NCAA tournament can be a costly grind for parents, and Lisa, a dispatcher for Comcast, and Wesley, a tech ops supervisor for the same cable company, had to work, so they figured they'd wait for a homecoming at the Georgia Dome. Ware had been averaging 20.0 minutes 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."
The Juniors went to a friend's house on Sunday for what they thought would be a party. And as they watched Ware's flying close-out at Tyler Thornton's three-pointer, and the camera's following the ball through the net, they saw Ware fall in the periphery, and it didn't seem like a big deal. "We thought that maybe he just sprained his ankle," Wesley says.
One second the game was everything fans and media 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 a player was staring in shock at the lower half of his right leg, which was bent at an impossible angle. The scene inspired visceral feelings of horror and panic and nausea.
Wyking Jones, one of Louisville's assistants who was seated at eye level with Ware's leg, due to the raised court, leaped out of his chair screaming, "NO!" Behanan turned to run up court, realized what had happened to his friend, and he collapsed on the floor. Cardinals guard Russ Smith started bawling. As forward Luke Hancock put it, "The whole crowd turned white."
But the horror felt by fans, and even by Ware's teammates and coaches, was nothing compared with what his mother experienced when CBS showed 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 son, could not call his teammates or his coaches on the bench. The image of his leg buckling will stay with her forever. But the helpless uncertainty was almost worse.
Everyone in the house fell silent. Minutes later Ware's girlfriend, Brittany Kelly, who'd been summoned from the crowd, called the Juniors from the ambulance to tell them he was hanging in. Shortly thereafter, they were informed that Ware 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.
While his teammates celebrated on the court, Ware called from the hospital. He was about to go into a two-hour surgery to have a rod inserted into his leg.
And what was the first thing Ware said?
"Calm down, Mom. I'm O.K."
Lisa figured her son was sedated. But she had been distraught, and Ware's words had a calming effect. What a son: to call and worry about her, and not himself?
Ware did that for his mother, and he had already done something for his teammates that has made him an NCAA tournament legend. Ware has a reputation as "one of the toughest guys I know," backup center Stephan Van Treese says, 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's so bad that even your team priest is nauseated, 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 your coach 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, is toughness.
"I don't think we could have gathered ourselves—I know I couldn't have—if Kevin didn't [do that]," Pitino would say.
The Cardinals did not gather themselves right away, though. When Smith, who had looked unstoppable while scoring 81 points in Louisville's first three tournament games, inbounded the ball to restart play, he says, "I felt paralyzed."
They muddled through the next 6½ minutes—"I think we were still in such shock," Hancock says—and somehow took a 35--32 lead into the break. Pitino regrouped them 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 outscored Duke 50--31 in the final 20 minutes. Smith finished with 23 points and won the region's Most Outstanding Player award. 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 a red steamroller, running them over on the way to face Wichita State in the Final Four. Just how Kevin Ware said it would happen.
The Cardinals left the nets up at Lucas Oil, as they had at Madison Square Garden after winning the Big East tournament. Ladders stood unused under each basket. They're waiting to use the ones at the Georgia Dome.
What Pitino did do, in the postgame melee, was grab a microphone and ask the crowd—consisting of probably 85% Louisville fans—one question:
"For about two minutes, can we all start chanting Kevin?"
They obliged, and it was too bad that CBS had already cut away: A certain home in Conyers would have liked to hear it. Afterward, in the locker room, the Cardinals 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, and Ware should be able to join his team. He emerged from successful surgery after 10 p.m. (Pitino and Tatum stayed the night in Indianapolis to see him when he woke up.) 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.