@University of Louisville photo. Image created for Ware's return by U of L's social media department.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It was a surprise for Kevin Ware. After all the rehabilitation and work following the broken leg he suffered on national television in an NCAA Tournament win over Duke in March, the wait was over, it seemed, in an instant.
Ware returned to full practice on Sunday. Trainer Fred Hina had him get taped as if he were going to play in Wednesday's University of Louisville exhibition game against Pikeville.
But Ware had no idea that his return to basketball would come Wednesday night in the second half of a 90-61 exhibition victory.
With 11 minutes to play in the game, Pitino turned to him and motioned him in. Ware got up and there was an instant buzz in the KFC Yum! Center. As he walked to the scorer's table, it grew to a roar. At a deadball, he was announced, and there was a standing ovation.
Just 220 days after fracturing his right leg he bounced onto the court after a timeout, and tried to get on with his life and his game.
There were cheers every time he touched the ball after that, and a loud ovation with 8:28 left when he took his first shot back -- swishing a three-pointer from the right wing.
"I think it's great, and kind of like a storybook plot taking your first shot and you don't touch the iron," Pitino said. "I wanted to get him some minutes just to get him over the jitters in case I need to use him against (in Saturday's opener against) Charleston."
Ware said he and Pitino hadn't talked about him playing Wednesday night and that he was surprised he got the call when he did.
When asked about the feeling of returning, however, Ware knew exactly how many days he'd been away.
"I've been waiting for this moment, what, 220 days? So I'm happy," he said. "I was a little nervous. . . . I honestly thought I'd airball my first shot, but when it went in, everything went back to normal, finally. . . . Being able to play basketball again."
On U of L's next trip down, he was knocked to the court on a drive, and the crowd gasped. But he went on to convert both free throws.
"I don't know if anybody's ever going to get used to that," Ware said. "But it didn't bother me. I took a bad step."
Ware returned to full practice on Sunday and wasn't expected to play in the game, but U of L sprinted out to a 30-point lead and he bounced up off the bench ready to get in.
His first several minutes back looked as if they might be a bit of a distraction for the team, but as the team settled down he worked quickly into the flow of the offense.
"It was great," U of L forward Wayne Blackshear said. "He's been practicing the last couple days. He's been doing great in practice, no hesitation or anything. You can't really tell (that he's been injured). He's been going at full speed and everything. When he went in the game, we said, ‘he's back now.' I don't think anybody knew he was going to play. It was a great surprise for everybody. . . . He's been telling us not to worry since the injury happened. He's a strong guy. We're just backing him up."
The only tentative moment for Ware came with about 6 1/2 minutes to play, when he jumped to close out on a three-pointer in the same spot on the court where he was injured in March.
Ware left the game with 3:47 to play, finishing his seven-minute stretch with six points and four rebounds. He said once he'd gotten out on the court, he got back into the flow quickly. And he said he doesn't expect a mental adjustment. He said he's back.
"I think mentally I am," he said. "I have a ways to go with my conditioning. I
need to get back in shape. But basketball-wise I feel like myself, my
speed and things like that. . . . By me not watching the video and not
really knowing what happened, it kind of took all (the psychological challenge) away. All I
really know is I had a freak accident when I broke my leg, and that's
all it really was."
The steel rod remains in Ware's leg, and he says he believes it's stronger than it was before.
"I've always been a two-footed jumper," Ware said. "Now I can tell a big difference going off one foot that I can get up a lot faster. There was a play in practice yesterday where I almost jumped over Montrezl (Harrell), and everybody was freaked out about it. But I'm leg pressing like 245 now. My leg is pretty strong."
When he would get down in the months leading up to his return, Ware said he had a tape that he always watched -- highlights of his play against Syracuse last season, and against Oregon in the NCAA Tournament, moments when he was at his best. He said he believes he can get back there.
"I don't have any doubt," he said. "To get back to that point, that's my goal, honestly. I feel like mentally I'm in a strong state. Physically I'm going to get there. So there's no reason to doubt myself. . . . We've got a lot of good guards. Wherever coach puts me I'm going to play."
Pitino said he wasn't going to evaluate Ware for a while.
"Give him a chance," Pitino said. "He's been back for 2 1/2 practices. Let's wait before we start to break down his game."
U of L won the exhibition game over Pikeville 90-61, and will open the season Saturday at 1 against College of Charleston.
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