By ASHLEY ANDERSON
It’s a road to redemption and now to recovery. Since the beginning of the 2012-13 season, the University of Louisville men’s basketball team has been hungry for vengeance. The team was cut short of a 2012 NCAA Finals appearance after losing to rival Kentucky in an unforgettable battle in New Orleans.
But, on March 31, a new element entered Louisville’s year-long equation of preparation, perspiration and painstaking focus in an attempt to resolve unfinished business. In an Elite Eight showdown with Duke, backup guard Kevin Ware experienced a horrific injury that left all of Lucas Oil Stadium frozen in silence, while those at home viewing the TV broadcast flinched in horror at the replays.
On the court, Russ Smith hunched over sobbing; Peyton Siva looked to the sky, seemingly asking for an answer or some sign from God. Pitino was seen wiping his eyes. Yet, despite the gruesome sight of Ware’s right leg – broken in two places with bone penetrating his skin – the entire team crowded around him, consoling him, holding his hand. Ware looked up with a calm sense of strength and uttered, “Win the game.”
“I went over and I was going to help him up, and then all of a sudden I saw what it was. And I literally almost threw up,” Coach Rick Pitino said in the Elite Eight post-game press conference. “…I don’t think we could have gathered ourselves, I know I couldn’t have, if Kevin didn’t over and over (keep) saying, ‘Just win the game.’ He kept saying it.”
Ware’s injury didn’t only impact his team. Much of the nation witnessed the tragedy, with well-known athletes sending their condolences via Twitter. NFL star Joe Theismann, who suffered an infamous career-ending leg injury, tweeted, “Watching Duke/Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware.” Rapper Lil’ Wayne wrote “May God be with Kevin Ware and his family.” Veteran ESPN analyst Skip Bayless called the scene “one of the most sickening leg injuries I’ve ever had to watch,” adding, “God bless Kevin Ware.”
It was a moment that even the most eloquent had trouble describing. Longtime broadcaster Bob Valvano took to Facebook to reflect on the significance of what transpired as he called the game on 84WHAS, admitting “only one other time, of a much more personal nature, was I moved to tears on the air.”
Valvano put the incident in perspective, reminding the public that, sometimes, the sport of basketball is far more than an athletic contest. “How fragile it all can be; you must embrace the moments, pull those dear to you near, and don’t waste the time you have with them. … It all can go away so fast.”
Louisville recovered and rolled over the Blue Devils in an 85-63 blowout that was heralded from coast to coast.
“Every once in a while the game transcends the sport, and the sport transcends itself, sending life lessons and creating human drama of the highest order,” Valvano concluded in his Facebook post.
What Louisville – and any sports fan watching – learned on Sunday was a lesson in perseverance, pride and the result of teamwork and humility. Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional Russ Smith rose to the occasion, scoring 23 for Louisville, while Gorgui Dieng added 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. As the final minutes ticked away, sophomore Chane Behanan slipped on Ware’s jersey as the forward stood at the end of the Louisville bench. “We (looked at) it as like Duke just took out one of our brothers,” Behanan said. “What are you going to do if one of your real biological brothers gets hurt? You’re going to go back and fight.”
Once the buzzer sounded, the Cards hurried onto the podium in the middle of the court to accept the NCAA Midwest Regional trophy and pose for a few photos. Their focus quickly shifted, however, to the fallen solider on their team. Pitino grabbed the microphone calling for a “KEVIN” chant from the stadium; the crowd happily obliged. And, then, the Cards were gone.
Louisville abandoned the giant ladder propped up on the hardwood. Despite tradition for each Final Four team to cut down the nets, the Cards insisted they’re waiting to touch only one set of threads hanging in Atlanta – The city, fittingly, where Ware lived briefly at age 14. “We just want to cut the final nets, that’s why every time we win, we just walk out,” Dieng said in the locker room.
On Friday, Louisville will edge one step closer toward the ultimate goal, facing No. 9 seed Wichita State in the national semifinals. Should the Cards win, they’ll play for the national championship against either Michigan or fellow Big East member Syracuse on Monday night.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune