Louisville's Luke Hancock ran a fast-break on shoulder surgery rehab to turn in a Final Four performance for the ages.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When it came to Luke Hancock, nobody knew.
Nobody knew that at the beginning of the University of Louisville basketball season, the junior transfer couldn't raise his shooting hand above his shoulder without a painful series of stretching and warm-up exercises. They didn't know that he couldn't even practice without going through this protracted ritual with trainer Fred Hina, that he didn't talk about it or mention it, nor complain about it. He just did it.
Nobody knew -- and still nobody really knows, except those closest to him -- how much he was hurting over the serious illness of his father. Nor, for that matter, does anyone know what his father's illness is. Hancock didn't want to bring the added pressure of attention to his father as he battled the illness, nor did he want his father to feel more pressure to try to get to big games at the end of the season than he probably already felt.
Nobody knew he was gearing up to make college basketball history, that he would break a championship game record by going 5-of-5 from three-point range, that he would become the first bench player to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, that he would tie a Final Four record by going 8-of-10 from three-point range, making more threes in two games than he did in the entire month of December.
Nobody knew he would develop the Shot Fake of Death, drawing three-shot fouls the way Kevin Ware draws new Twitter followers.
Nobody knew he would become the understated backbone of this team, from his role in settling Ware during his injury to the respect teammates showed him in the locker room.
Sort through the most memorable photos of the University of Louisville's NCAA Tournament run and Hancock's signature is all over them. When Ware was lying on the ground with a broken leg, Hancock was kneeling right beside him, praying, helping him to compose himself. Ware said it was Hancock's calming prayer that helped him deliver an inspirational message to his coaches and teammates before being wheeled out.
Late in that game against Duke, nobody thought much of it when Hancock set up a seemingly meaningless three-pointer for Tim Henderson. Nobody thought much of it, until Henderson came off the bench to save the season against Wichita State with two monumental threes that changed the momentum of the game and sparked the Cardinals to the championship round.
With 2:06 and a two-point lead over Wichita State, Hancock's three pointer gave the Cards daylight. Up three with 1:16 left, his drive and twisting, slight-of-hand left-handed layup kept the daylight, and would be replayed over and over. He missed a free throw with the Cards up three with nine seconds left, then got a tie-up that helped the Cardinals seal the win.
There were the Four. Straight. Threes. Reeling Michigan back in after the Wolverines had gone up by 12 late in the first half of the national championship game.
On the podium as they gave Hancock the trophy for being the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Pitino said he was laughing to himself. As the largest crowd to watch an NCAA championship game cheered for him and the Louisville fans chanted his name, Pitino thought back to a game in December, when the struggling Hancock made a three-pointer, and the KFC Yum! Center erupted in exaggerated applause.
"This kid was getting a Bronx cheer," Pitino said. "But he never wavered. He stayed positive and kept working. He's as tough a player as I've ever seen."
Once Hancock's shot started to come around, the Cards began to run away from people. They had been a team that for a season and a half and bludgeoned people with defense. But with Hancock beginning to make three-pointers in the high 40-percent range, the Cardinals got some breathing room to press the pace and turn up the heat defensively.
It was in a game at Syracuse that Hancock began to emerge. He made all three of his three-point tries in that game, all of them coming in the final nine minutes, to lead U of L to a victory. He also made the game's key plays: A deflection and steal from Brandon Triche with 1:14 left, then buried a three, on a called play out of a timeout after a drive and dish from Russ Smith, to put U of L up 51-48 with 53 seconds left.
After that game, Hina stood in the locker room and just shook his head. Hina was the guy before every practice and game who took Hancock onto the court to throw each other overhead two-hand passes to loosen him up. Then Hina would have Hancock throw the basketball like a baseball. They would do "tissue mobilization," which sounds soft and fluffy, but actually is a rather severe series of stretches which breaks up and loosens the scar tissue in the shoulder. They do stretching. If you watched Hancock carefully, he's always moving the shoulder on the bench to try to keep it from tightening back up. You'd have to watch him. He never talked about it.
But that wasn't all. He had weight programs to re-strengthen the surgically repaired shoulder. He was going through two separate rehabilitation programs.
"He has a rotator cuff program and a scapular stabilization program," Hina said. "And obviously the biggest thing with the type of injury he had is restoring full range of motion. And that's still going to take some time because it was just a really bad injury. . . . He's working on the shoulder on various programs a good 30 minutes to an hour every day."
And that was just to get himself ready to play.
"All the credit goes to him," Hina said. "The type of injury he had, a complete glenohumeral dislocation with a partial rotator cuff tear. And the rotator cuff tear is the thing that really takes a long time. Most people don't come back from that for 8-12 months. He was back in four months."
If he was frustrated, he didn't show it. Pitino ratcheted up expectations for Hancock when he told fans he was the best player on the team in practice, and when he made him a captain before playing in a single game. There was a story behind that, too. It happened the summer before the 2011-12 season, more than a year before Hancock, a transfer from George Mason, would even play.
"The players in the summertime decide what they want to do as workouts," Pitino said. "We don't have anything organized. They want to lift, get it over with at 6:15 in the morning. They're really into weight training. Rakeem (Buckles) and Russ (Smith), two of our better players, showed up late. Remember now, they're just seeing Luke really for the first time. They knew him a little bit. Luke said, 'That stuff is not going to cut it here at Louisville.' Right away you think some guys would answer back, 'Who are you to say that?' But instead they immediately said, 'It's our bad, it won't happen again.'"
"That was repeated to me. For the rest of the summer, everybody kept telling me from training and strength coaches what Luke was all about. I named him captain right away. He has the maturity, he has that Louisville‑first attitude. It's all about the team with him. He's one of the better leaders I've been around. It showed you when Kevin got hurt, he immediately went to pray over him, immediately took charge of the situation."
For all everyone did not know about Hancock, here's one thing the media did know: He was a go-to player in the locker room. He was insightful and articulate, and if you wanted to do a feature on one of his teammates, he always had interesting and complimentary things to say. He could break down a game as well as a coach, and sometimes with more candid detail.
But when it came time to describing all that had happened to him, for once, he was a bit tied up. He enjoyed some of the NCAA media attention. And why not? He was a kid who went unrecruited at the Division I level out of high school. And he was emerging as the key player on college basketball's biggest stage. Pitino was going to let him sit out an interview after he'd helped the Cardinals lock up a trip to the title game, but when Hancock heard that Charles Barkley was going to be there, he ripped the ice off his shoulder and wouldn't be kept away. He clearly got a kick out of the experience.
Which was good. He deserved to. There was always, back of his stunning success -- 42 points off the bench in two Final Four games -- a sad backstory that we did not know, only saw in glances over to his father, or a finger pointed at a poignant time.
He didn't want to talk much about it. Nor did he ever get around to reflecting much on his own success. And when he did, these were the words.
"Just blessed," he said. "Blessed to be in this situation. I'm just so happy for our team. I'm happy that multiple guys got to contribute on this great run. Everybody from Tim Henderson on. It's just great for our team. I'm so happy for these guys."
Nobody knew just how big a load Luke Hancock would shoulder, nor how happy Louisville would be that he did.
This series of championship profiles is part of an e-Book compilation from WDRB.com and Eric Crawford titled, "The Run," a look back at the University of Louisville's NCAA title run through Eric's game stories from WDRB, and new material on the players and Coach Rick Pitino. The e-Book will be available FREE OF CHARGE from WDRB.com in May, via the web site in easy-to-adapt PDF form, or from the iTunes store, as a thank you to our readers. TOMORROW'S PROFILE: Chane Behanan.