NCAA BK

Injured player's spirit healed team

Watch: Rick Pitino and his players talk about winning one for Kevin Ware.
Watch: Rick Pitino and his players talk about winning one for Kevin Ware.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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INDIANAPOLIS

Kevin Ware was lying on the court in front of the bench, having fallen after trying to block a shot, and coach Rick Pitino was there first, hustling over to try to help him up. Pitino looked at Ware’s leg, stopped short and almost threw up. Then Ware looked down at his own leg, and screamed.

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The bone was sticking out, through the skin, about six inches. Pitino tried to cover it with a towel before his players could see, but it was too late. With Louisville players breaking into tears immediately and a few throwing up and assistant coach Wyking Jones running away and Ware’s best friend on the team, Chane Behanan, on elbows and knees, face-to-the-court in agony, Ware was on the court yelling over and over:

“Just go win this game. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Just go win this game. Just go win this game.’’

That’s how Louisville’s players and Pitino described it later. The players had to turn around, with that image in their minds, of their friend like that, and play the final 6 1/2 minutes of the first half, and then the rest of the Regional Final against Duke. As the ball was inbounded to start play again, Louisville’s Russ Smith was on the court, still in tears, calling for the ball and then driving to the basket and missing.

You probably know what happened by now: Louisville turned a close game into a blowout. Instead of falling apart, the Cardinals somehow found a different and higher level of focus. Could you have done that, having seen a friend like that?

Louisville beat Duke 85-63 on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium to advance to the Final Four.

“When he went down, I was scared,’’ Behanan said, still on the court after the game, crammed into Ware’s jersey. “I’ve never cried for anybody like that before. And he’s down there saying, `Don’t worry about me. I’m good. Play for me. Win it. Let’s go.’’’

Look, the scene is the scene, but this moment had meaning, too. It was a lesson for everyone. Think about this:

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Ware is on the court, bone out of his leg, showing incredible selflessness. He stayed so focused that he actually helped Pitino. The players showed incredible courage to do it. Pitino showed incredible leadership.

We see so much bad in sports now, that they are even defined by it. And you have to wonder if sports really teaches values at all, or if that was always just some sort of myth.

And then a moment like this happens, and in all of its hideousness and cruelty, you see a beautiful thing emerge. These were all the staple values of sport.

In the end, Ware’s injury was serious, but probably no more so than many other sports injuries. What made it different was the visual.

He was taken to the hospital, where he had a successful two-hour surgery Sunday night. The bone was reset with a rod inserted into the right tibia. Pitino said he would stay the night, visit Ware after the surgery and then again Monday morning. Pitino said that Ware has a broken leg, but that the ACL and MCL ligaments supporting the knee were OK. The recovery time could be a matter of months, though one player told me it might be longer because “his leg was in two parts.’’

Pitino said Ware will be back on the team 100 percent someday.

It came on such a seemingly innocuous play. Ware was running toward the perimeter to close out on a 3-point shot from Duke’s Tyler Thornton with 6:33 left in the half. He jumped to challenge the shot, and while in the air, turned back to see the play. He then landed on his right leg, which kept going toward the bench while the rest of his body stopped. The leg snapped.

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And after a long delay, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told officials and Pitino that Louisville should take the time it needed, even warm up again if it wanted.

“Whatever decision they made,’’ Krzyzewski said, “was going to be OK.’’

Pitino told the team that there was no way they were going to lose that game after Ware was so selflessly telling them to win. He reminded them of that the rest of the game.

What happened in the game was that Louisville’s tenacity on defense eventually flustered Duke. Louisville’s guards kept driving the lane to take advantage of Duke’s post players, who were playing carefully while in foul trouble.

“I almost didn’t feel nothing,’’ Smith said. “It was really hard for me to pull myself together because I didn’t ever think in a million years I would see something like that.’’

In fact, Pitino said that seeing Ware keep his composure was what drove the team to win. He said that Luke Hancock had gone from a guy who had never been in a defensive stance before to “someone who just stopped them cold there.

“So it was terrible to watch. I felt awful for the players, felt awful for the fans. But we had to gather ourselves. We couldn’t lose this game for him. We couldn’t.’’

On the court minutes afterward, Pitino asked the fans over the PA system to chant “Ke-vin’’ for two minutes. They did.

And nearly an hour later, Pitino talked about it with the media, sniffling the whole way. Was he fighting the cold that everyone on the team has, or still fighting his emotions?

“A little of both,’’ he said. His eyes were red.

Tagged: Louisville, Duke

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