Kevin Ware grew up in Georgia with three siblings, all sisters, but after midnight on April 1, his 12 brothers back in Louisville were waiting up and wondering: What would he say to them next? The last time they'd heard from Ware, he was lying beside the court at Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium, a towel covering the six inches of compound-fractured tibia that was sticking out of his right leg, and in that moment of agony, quiet Kevin Ware grew into something larger than himself—selfless and soon-to-be-nationally-famous Kevin Ware, who said to a crew of traumatized Cardinals players, "Just win, don't worry about me, just win," over and over again. Those were the words that propelled them to beat Duke and reach the Final Four, the words that bonded him deeper with, he says, "the brothers that I never had."
Louisville's brotherhood communicates via a group text-message thread, and on this night, after they bused home from Indy, backup center Zach Price sent a photo of himself with the pit bull he'd just bought, Dutchess, clutched to his chest. This, of all things, is what triggered Ware to emerge from a postsurgical haze at Indy's Methodist Hospital and text an out-of-nowhere reply-all:
I still need my dog lol
Ware's teammates lit up the thread with exclamatory tributes. In the days before his injury, Ware had been talking about getting a dog of his own, so this was "a perfect text," says walk-on Michael Baffour, "because it took us all back to normal, knowing he wasn't dwelling on [his leg]." They stopped dwelling on it too—and Price and forward Wayne Blackshear went out that Monday night and bought their brother a dog, the hardest-headed male from the same litter that produced Dutchess. It was delivered in a ware number 5 custom-made doggie T-shirt, and Ware's girlfriend, Brittany Kelly, persuaded him to name it Scar, "to represent the journey back."
Everyone wanted to do something for Kev. His coach, Rick Pitino, had stayed an extra day in Indy to be with Ware in the hospital, and on Monday morning asked what he wanted to eat. "Hooters," was Ware's reply, even though it was 10:30 a.m. Kelly, a Louisville sophomore majoring in biochemistry, is also a waitress at the Hooters in Jeffersonville, Ind., and Ware is addicted to the franchise's chipotle honey chicken wings.
Pitino's theme for the 2012--13 Cardinals has been "humility." A lack of it, he told his players, was the one thing that could doom a team that was coming off a Final Four trip and was ranked No. 2 in most preseason polls. HUMILITY stayed written on a whiteboard in Louisville's film room all season, and a week before he would be announced as a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and win his second national championship on the same day, Rick Pitino, 60, waited for an Indianapolis Hooters to open so that he, his son Richard and Cardinals equipment manager Vinny Tatum could make a wings run for a backup sophomore guard who averaged 4.5 points per game.
There was one thing Ware wanted more than a dog or Hooters takeout, but he waited to ask until he was discharged from the hospital and back in Louisville's training room the following day. "You guys," he told his teammates, not lol-ing at all, "better go win two more games."
They flew to the Final Four with Ware in row 8 of the team charter, the seat in front of him folded down to make room for his bandaged leg, a fruit basket at his side. The outpouring of love and attention—he fielded calls from Oprah and Kobe and Michelle Obama—became a story in itself, and point guard Peyton Siva, the closest thing the Cardinals have to a household name, said that Ware was now "the most famous person I know." But while Ware inspired Louisville, he did not, ultimately, define its tournament. There were moments for all to savor in Atlanta.
Think of the run his coach went on, after leaving Ware's hospital bedside on April 1. The next day Pitino fielded a call from the Naismith Hall of Fame, informing him he had made the class of 2013, and when he put the call on speaker so that his wife, Joanne, could hear, the screen lit up with a text that said Go Gophers; it was his son Richard telling his parents he'd just taken the head-coaching job at Minnesota. "I was looking around for lightning," Pitino says, but his roll continued. Last Saturday one of the racehorses Pitino co-owns, Goldencents, won the Santa Anita Derby, qualifying for the Kentucky Derby—at the same time the Cardinals were beating Wichita State, 72--68, in the national semifinal. On Monday morning Pitino attended the Hall of Fame announcement with Siva; on Monday night, by beating Michigan 82--76, Pitino became the first coach to win NCAA titles at two schools. In the final seconds of the game, he made his way down the bench, embracing, one by one, the players whom he credits with renewing his love for coaching.
"One day I hope to get lucky like Coach P," says junior guard Russ Smith, who wore shoes during the Cardinals' 16-game, season-closing winning streak with his two mottoes written on the back: STAY POSITIVE AND GET LUCKY. The racehorse Pitino named after Smith, Russdiculous, was claimed at a $115,000 loss in February—"it wasn't worthy of that name," Pitino says—but Smith had dominated the tournament through the first five games, scoring a bracket-high 125 points. On Monday against Michigan his luck ran out, and Louisville needed someone else to carry its offense after falling behind by 12 in the first half. And what kind of brotherhood would these Cardinals be if they failed to pick each other up?
The player who emerged was junior forward Luke Hancock, a transfer from George Mason who'd had zero D-I offers before he did a prep year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. While Ware's suffering became morning-show material, few knew of Hancock's own worries—until the source of those worries was sitting in the front row behind Louisville's bench on Monday night. Hancock ran out for warmups and looked at his 70-year-old father, Bill, "and I kind of choked up, because he gets exhausted just sitting there, and he had his head down and didn't look at me."
The man whom Hancock calls Dad-o is battling an illness so serious that his wife, Van, would only say, "It's just so bad that I don't even want to say it." Bill had seen Luke play in one game of the Big East tournament in New York City—something he'd always wanted to do—and there was concern, in the family, that that might be the last time he saw Luke play this season.
But Bill gathered the strength to travel from the family home in Roanoke, Va., to Atlanta, and Luke took it upon himself to energize his father, and the throngs of Louisville fans in the 74,326-person crowd, by scoring 14 straight points in the first half to cut the Wolverines' lead to one. He reversed the game's momentum and finished with 22 points and no turnovers, shooting 5 of 5 from long range. Afterward Hancock walked up to his father and asked him a question he'd asked after hundreds of games:
"How was that?"
"That was great," Bill said.
Dad-o's favorite piece of advice for Luke is Pull the trigger.
"I pulled the trigger, right?"
"Yeah, you did."
Bill was too exhausted to stand, but he sat with Van and their five other children and watched the video board to see Luke being named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. "This is unreal," Van said, to no one in particular. The family grabbed a plastic bag and stuffed into it some of the streamers that had fallen from the Georgia Dome ceiling: something tangible to remind them, when they returned to Roanoke, that it hadn't all been a dream.
Such heroics were not out of character for Hancock, who was the one truly poised Cardinal in a rockfight against Wichita State, scoring nine points in the final 6½ minutes. Backup guard Tim Henderson says Hancock has that "it factor": "He's not afraid to shine in that moment."
Nor was Hancock afraid in the instant after Ware's leg snapped on March 31: He leaped up from the bench to comfort his brother, while many of his teammates, as Ware put it, were "spooked out" by the sight, either bawling or collapsed or both.
Hancock put his hand on Ware's chest and said a prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, please watch over Kevin in this tough time. We just want him to know that You're here with him, and that everything will be all right.... After they said "Amen," in unison, Ware found the strength to urge the Cardinals to win.
And what drove Hancock to act? If it was me, he thought, I wouldn't want to be alone.
Last April, Hancock separated his right shoulder in a pickup game, an injury so brutal that Louisville trainer Fred Hina said, "I've never seen so much damage in my life." What Hancock remembers most about the injury was how the Cardinals' director of operations, Andre McGee, had rushed to his side and gone with him to the hospital. Hancock had not been left alone. He wanted to pay that forward.
That helping instinct was pervasive throughout Louisville's championship season. When 6'11" junior center Gorgui Dieng broke his left (nonshooting) wrist on Nov. 23 in the Battle 4 Atlantis and couldn't play in the finals against Duke, he didn't sulk—he spent his time counseling backup Stephan Van Treese on how to stay down and defend Blue Devils star Mason Plumlee. And three days after the Cardinals returned from that tournament in the Bahamas, forward Chane Behanan, who'd struggled against Duke, sent Dieng this text: Gorgui Wats up brother!! With you being out its going to be a tough one for the team but I will fill your place until you come back. Block shots, rebounds, deflections, dunks and all that so you don't have to worry about anything! Get better and come back a different person! The new Gorgui Dieng!!
He signed it "Chane Dieng Behanan." Two games later, a three-point win over Illinois State on Dec. 1, Behanan made the crucial defensive play by pinning Jackie Carmichael's shot against the backboard in the final minute. On Dec. 29 against Kentucky, in Dieng's first game back, Behanan's late steal-and-slam clinched another three-point victory. And on Monday night, when Dieng had four fouls, it was Behanan who grabbed seven offensive boards and demoralized Michigan's front line. "I saw fear in their eyes," he said, "and I kept going at them."
The backbone of this brotherhood is Siva, a point guard from a large and troubled Samoan family, who has long demonstrated his ability to take care of others. At age 13, he borrowed an older brother's car and drove the streets of Seattle, searching for his father, Peyton Sr., who had a gun and was suicidal. He persuaded his dad to throw the gun away, and then helped him recover from an addiction to crystal meth.
For his second family, Siva serves as a leader-counselor, the one his teammates go to for help on everything from plays to class work, and the one who serves as a relentlessly positive counterbalance to Pitino's fiery critiques. The Cardinals' chaplain, Father Ed Bradley, is one of Siva's many admirers. "At halftime, when Rick really gets on someone," Bradley says, "Rick will leave first and go to the coaches' room. Peyton will go over [to that guy] and say, 'Listen, it's O.K.' He's like a cheerleader of his teammates."
If Siva did not need growing up at Louisville, having arrived already a man, the Cardinals' Smith and Dieng certainly did. They both arrived on campus as unheralded prospects in 2010, one from Brooklyn and the other from Senegal by way of Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, and they were full of despair as freshmen for different reasons. Dieng had left his parents and seven siblings behind in Africa to chase a basketball dream, but he was crippled by his inability to communicate—or learn from Pitino—in English. "I used to sit in my room and cry big tears," says Dieng, a native Wolof speaker. "I was frustrated. You can't talk to anybody. You don't understand what they are saying."
Smith cried in his dorm room because—as you might imagine from seeing the way he attacks the basket—he had no patience and was struggling through injuries, Pitino's criticism and almost nonexistent playing time. Smith would send texts to his mother, Paulette O'Neal, telling her, I wanna go home ... I am not happy here—and she would reply, There's nothing back here [in Brooklyn] for you to do. He went to the extent of packing up all his belongings with the intent to quit on Jan. 26, 2011, before a home game against West Virginia, but teammate Rakeem Buckles persuaded him to attend the game, and a short stint of playing time—in which he went 1 for 7 in 12 minutes—somehow persuaded Smith to stay.
He and Dieng and the Lexington-raised Baffour, whom Smith calls Dark Slime (which means "black best friend" in Smith-ese), became an unlikely trio of buddies, and as Dieng grasped English—one of five languages in which he's now fluent—he began dispensing the wisdom that he is now known for. "Just relax," Dieng would say to Smith. "Your time will come."
Two years later, the former two-star recruit was the best player on the best team in the NCAA tournament, while Dieng was the anchor of its frontcourt, and they and Dark Slime, who held up the end of the bench, stayed up late in hotels in New York, Lexington, Indianapolis and Atlanta, talking about basketball and life, cherishing what may be their final trips together as collegians.
They were there to console Smith after his beloved high school coach and mentor, Jack Curran—"the first person to trust me as a player"—passed away at age 82 on the morning of Louisville's Big East tournament quarterfinal. (Smith dedicated the game to Curran and scored 28 points against Villanova.) They would talk strategy and scouting reports, with Dieng advising Smith to be patient early on against Duke (to first assess its defensive strategy) and aggressive against Wichita State (to try to set a tone against a defense that wanted to wall up). And they made fun of each other: Dieng, for being terrified of the bomb-sniffing dogs that inspect their luggage before games ("Gorgui puts his bag down and hides on the other side of the room," Baffour says); Smith, for using their entire allotment of hotel towels when he showers ("Do you think you are some kind of prince?" Dieng asks).
And when Dieng drifted off to sleep, Smith stayed up, doing push-ups and whatever else he deemed necessary to burn off his nervous energy. The group text-message thread was his creation, and as Hancock says, "95 percent of it is nonsense, and most of it is Russ, at all hours." Dieng, whom they've gradually Americanized by desensitizing him to excessive use of electronics, is amused by it—but he has his limits. "Sometimes your phone just keeps going off, and you can't sleep," he says. "And then I tell Russ to stop." The only sure-fire way to silence Russ Smith at night, Dieng says, is to just shut your phone off altogether.
For 16 straight games, no one had found a way to silence Louisville, and late on Monday night the Cardinals fans in the crowd saved their greatest roar for the moment when one of the Georgia Dome rims was lowered so that Ware, leaning on his crutches, could cut down the remainder of the net. The party around him will eventually break up—Smith's dad, Big Russ, said after the game that his son was gone to the pros; Dieng already had his senior night as a junior; and Siva will be graduating—leaving Ware to endure the long recovery process without many of his brothers. But he will hardly be alone.
In the locker room Ware sat with the net around his neck and told the throng of reporters, "I'm gonna let my dog play with [the net]. Hopefully he don't bite it up.... I can't wait to get back tomorrow and see him."
Lest we forget, Scar was waiting for Ware back in Louisville. He had fallen instantly in love with the pit bull pup, his girlfriend says, after what happened when they met last Tuesday: "It was like Scar could sense Kevin was hurting," Kelly says, "so he went right up to him, crawled onto his chest and fell asleep." A dog with the instinct to help a brother in need? Ware knew, right then, that Scar would make a fine Louisville Cardinal.
For complete coverage of Louisville's Shoni Schimmel and the women's championship game, which took place after this issue went to press, go to SI.com/mag