Louisville's Kevin Ware, beside Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, talks with reporters after surgery to repair the broken leg he suffered against Duke. (AP photo)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Everybody talks about how Kevin Ware's season ended. What should not be forgotten is how it truly began.
Kevin Ware sat through the University of Louisville's two-point loss at Georgetown in January and fumed. He played all of three minutes, and watching his team struggle against the Hoyas' zone something snapped a little bit.
The next day when coaches told him to do something, he balked. He said that they were wasting his time. It wasn't in his nature to fire back like that, and it drew quick retribution -- a one-game suspension from head coach Rick Pitino, who sat him during the Cardinals' victory over Pittsburgh.
But after that, something changed. Pitino must have thought long and hard about Ware's situation. Here was a player who wasn't just among the best on the team in preseason workouts, but had been the best during some stretches.
Ware had put in perhaps more work than any player on the team during the offseason. He came back to practice in August as the team's most improved player. Why weren't they seeing results? Pitino decided to make a move. Having seen Ware's ability to get to the rim against anyone in practice, he decided just to put the ball in Ware's hands. Ware had not fared well as a point guard during his freshman season, but given all of his offseason work, his ball handling had improved to the point where he could handle the point.
And Ware took off. Instead of wasting his time, he was making the most of it.
It's no coincidence that U of L started a winning streak it would continue throughout the NCAA Tournament when Ware started playing his best basketball.
"He gives them another dimension," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
In the second half of a key Big East Conference game at Syracuse, Ware's emergence became complete when Pitino sat his struggling senior point guard, Peyton Siva, in favor of Ware in the second half. Syracuse's taller backcourt players, who were effective at times shooting over Siva and Russ Smith, said they considered Ware a defensive upgrade -- which was saying something, given the defensive abilities of the other two.
The signature moment of Ware's season, before its end, may have been in the Big East Tournament championship game, when he completed a thunderous dunk, then dogged Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams back up the court in the press, unable to contain his laughter the whole time.
His presence made the Cardinals a team without a weakness heading into the NCAA Tournament.
But it was his gruesome season-ending broken leg for which he'll be remembered. And it was his response to that injury that helped his team win a championship.
"If he doesn't say what he said, laying on the court, saying, 'I'm fine, just win the game,' I don't know if we beat Duke and go on to a championship," Pitino said.
Seeing Ware's selfless reaction, and the reactions of his teammates, Pitino said, was at once one of the most painful and satisfying moments of his coaching career.
In the aftermath of that, Ware became the toast of a nation. He got phone calls from Kobe Bryant, Oprah and Michelle Obama, and multiple calls from Jesse Jackson. His inboxes were a who's who. Network news crews set up shop on U of L's campus to talk to the young man who showed such grace amid such misfortune on national television.
His teammates wore "Win for Ware" warm-up shirts. When it was announced that U of L's admissions office was making "Win for Ware" ribbons, the response was overwhelming. They couldn't buy enough ribbons. At one point, Jenny Sawyer, U of L's executive director of admissions, turned to a woman who had been working tirelessly on the ribbons in the admissions office all day, figuring she had come from another office on campus to help. When she asked what office the woman came from, the woman told her no, she didn't work for U of L, just saw on television that they were making ribbons and she wanted to help. People were coming in off the street to help in the "Win for Ware" effort.
For their part, Pitino and Ware himself seemed to understand why the attention of the nation fell on his unfortunate injury. But they also tried at times during a news conference to downplay it.
Asked what message he'd send to fans, Ware simply said, "I'm fine." He was a guy with a broken leg, that everyone saw fracture in front of their eyes in high definition, and he simply and candidly told his story, but didn't make any claims for himself beyond who he was. Maybe that was part of the story's resonance.
"I think when you see all the pouring out of emotion of his teammates and the severity of the injury and then him just forgetting about the injury while six inches of his bone is out of his skin and he's saying just win, just win. . . . It was an incredible display of emotion from his teammates as well as himself," Pitino said, trying to explain why the story took on the bigger-than-life quality, particularly in the national media.
The aftermath of Ware's story has been remarkable. The national response. Ware's Cardinal teammates pulling together for a national championship. Ware attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner as a guest of CNN.
Even weeks after the game, Pitino still got emotional speaking about Ware, lying on the sideline with a broken leg, looking up at him. Before he spoke to his teammates, urging them to win the game, it was Pitino Ware was looking at, straight in the eyes, speaking to directly, saying, "Coach, I'm going to be good. You've got to win this game." Repeating it over and over.
Since the injury, Ware has said, "Coach P is like another father to me. He has helped me mature in ways more than basketball. He has gotten through to me, if I never played basketball it wouldn't matter, I'm still a son to him and he's still going to be there for me and help me however he can."
Ware told ESPN, "It kind of opened me up more to him, you know. I'm not one of those guys where I tend to express a lot of emotion, but just seeing how he was there for me, seeing coach cry, that's not something you really see a lot. Just seeing how he cares, just showed how he was there for me. I knew it before, but him taking time to be there with me, staying in Indianapolis while the team went back. When people care for you, you really know. I love him to death. I'm going to be happy to play for him next season."
The moment was remarkable enough. The response to it just as remarkable. But if you ask Pitino, the biggest development from the injury and its aftermath has been the growth of Ware himself. The injury, Pitino said, revealed something about Ware that had been well below the surface.
"Here's a young man who was suspended. He was very sullen, very mistrustful of adults because he never really had a father figure," Pitino said. "And suddenly, look at the change. . . . I'm not talking about calls and celebrities writing to him. He's this gregarious person . . . It made him a man who has outgoing skills, who has a personality to communicate with a lot of people, from being on Letterman to going out and speaking -- effectively -- to groups of people. We didn't know that was within him. He didn't know he had all these talents. They were hidden. And they might not have come out, or would have taken longer to come out, if not for these events, and his courage in dealing with them. In that five-minute period, he witnessed a teammate praying over him, he saw the emotion of his teammates and coaches, and he suddenly felt that incredible love that a family has when someone is suffering, and it changed his whole personality."
It changed more than that. Undeniably, it changed his life. Everybody is talking about the dramatic turn Ware's life has taken. He's most eager now for people to start talking about basketball again. His sights are set on a rapid return.
Even before the stitches were removed from his repaired right leg, he was pushing himself to put weight and pressure on it, itching to begin the rehabilitation process. Having watched one shining moment from the sidelines, he's now thinking about a new shining moment -- that time, whenever it happens, when Pitino points to him, and he rises off the bench, approaches the scorer, calls out the substitution, hears the horn blow, the announcement of his name, and the ovation of a fan base ready to celebrate his return, and what he meant to the program and its championship season, even in his painful departure.
It'll be some moment. And it'll be a far different Ware who takes the court than the one who left it in that moment against Duke.
"I won't be kept down. I'll always be the same, all-out player," he said. "But I'll appreciate everything and everybody even more."
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: Wayne Blackshear.