INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- The reactions were swift and strong when University of Louisville sophomore Kevin Ware landed on his right leg after trying to block a three-point attempt and the lower leg broke into a gruesome open fracture.
Ware was into surgery by the time his teammates were celebrating their 85-63 win over Duke and second straight trip to the Final Four, waving his No. 5 jersey to the crowd, and passing it from player to player to wear in the locker room after the game.
It was as emotional a scene as you'll see. When Ware went down, Chane Behanan fell to the court. Peyton Siva, without knowing why, dropped to the court. Russ Smith broke into tears and threw up. Siva, on the ground, without thinking, started to pray. Duke players who saw the injury wiped away tears. Behanan was so distraught he had to be taken out of the game. Montrezl Harrell wrapped both arms around Behanan's neck, and cradled the back of his head with his hand.
On the sideline, U of L network radio announcers Paul Rogers and Bob Valvano choked up. "I've never been so invested emotionally in a game like that," Valvano said.
And on the U of L bench, Rick Pitino reached down to help Ware up, then he and Ware saw the broken leg at the same time.
"We were both okay, and then we saw the bone, and we both lost it," Pitino said.
Trainer Fred Hina already was scrambling toward Ware, but he had to climb up to the court because of the elevated court configuration. He got to Ware to cover the break with a towel, while strength coach Ray Ganong went immediately and took Ware's hand in one hand and his head in another and calmly began talking with him.
"It was an open fracture of the lower leg, specifically the tibia," Hina said. ". . . One thing that was really difficult is that you have to establish whether there's circulation below the fracture. Did he disrupt any arteries. Then once we established that, it is stabilize the fracture as tight as you can so it doesn't move, and then get him to advanced care. . . Coach Ganong has been through many of these, and he's a great person to take the head of the athlete and help him calm the situation. Kevin had seen it, so he knew. So Ray explained everything we were doing, and to be calm and we'd take care of him."
As he calmed down, however, Ware's focused switched from himself back to the team. He said, "Get somebody in for me."
While many of his teammates couldn't watch, Luke Hancock went to him and kept talking to him.
"It was hard to see," Hancock said. "But think about this. Think about a guy having an injury like that and thinking about the team and saying, 'Just win the game.' Over and over. It's unbelievable. 'Win the game. Win the game.' Over and over again. I kept telling him things were going to be all right. He just said, 'Win the game, that's all I want.' I just wanted him to be sure we were going to do it. It was hard to be over there, but if it was me, I know I'd want some teammates there."
Before they carried Ware out on a stretcher, Pitino called his team over around him, and he repeated, each time more insistently, "I'll be fine. Win the game. I'll be fine. Win the game."
"They had to hear it from him," Pitino said.
But their minds still weren't on the game. As they put the ball into play, Pitino took one knee next to the court and still had to wipe away tears.
In the halftime locker room, the coach had very little to say. One reason was that the team had played so flawlessly. Several assistants said that the number of actual defensive mistakes the team committed in the first half they could count on one hand. Two or three missed rotations.
It was, they said, the best U of L has ever executed to individual scouting reports, taking away individual players strengths and attacking their weaknesses.
The locker room was quiet when the team entered, and Pitino had Father Ed Bradley offer a prayer. Pitino made some brief remarks, then went back to Ware, and reminded them of what he had said on his way out. And then Pitino told them this:
"If you guys aren't going to get him back home (to Atlanta, site of the Final Four), this season hasn't been worht playing."
Ware's injury captured national attention immediately. It trended nationally on Twitter. Joe Theisman, Hall of Fame Washington Redskins quarterback who suffered a similar traumatic injury in a game, tweeted his condolences.
But he wasn't alone. Robert Griffin III said, "Prayers up for Kevin Ware, his teammates and family." NBA star Kevin Love tweeted, "I don't even have words." Ware also got Twitter well-wishes from baseball standout Bryce Harper and paralyzed Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand. From the entertainment world, Lil Wayne tweeted, "May God be with Kevin Ware and his family. Ya in my prayers bro."
U of L's players said the emotions of what they saw never really went away.
"I never stopped thinking about it the whole game," U of L center Gorgui Dieng said.
As the seconds wound down, equipment manager Vinny Tatum passed Ware's backup jersey to Behanan, and he began waving it to the crowd.
On the trophy presentation stand, as the public address announcer was listing the All-Region team, Pitino seized the microphone and asked the crowd, for two minutes, to chant, "Kevin."
"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. I had to bring everybody over, take Chane out of the game," Pitino said afterward. "It was a gruesome sight. Nothing like I've ever witnessed before in my life or a basketball game. But I think when he kept saying that, we were in serious foul trouble. But I don't think we could have gone in that locker room with a loss after seeing that. So being in serious foul trouble, Stephan Van Treese gave us a big lift. Luke has gone from a guy who never even got in a defensive stance to someone who just stopped them cold there. That's an amazing tribute to his fortitude. 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 just couldn't."
In the locker room after the game, Ware's teammates had mixed emotions.
"Getting to the Final Four, it's all we've worked for," Harrell said. "Sitting here right now, I don't feel much like celebrating."
But the Cards will move on.
"We're going to keep playing for him," Behanan said. "It's tragic for him, but he will be back. He has his life and career and we're all going to get him back. We're going to keep doing work."
The players packed up their gear and headed back to Louisville. Pitino packed up his and headed to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where he'll spend the night with Ware before they return to Louisville tomorrow.
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