LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kevin Ware will always remember the Derby Festival Basketball Classic as the game where he said hello to the city of Louisville.
Friday night, three years after he played in the game, Ware attended the Derby Classic at Freedom Hall. But even though Ware has already announced that he will transfer from the University of Louisville to Georgia State this summer, he was not ready to say goodbye.
Ware said he will finish his U of L classwork next week and then depart home for Georgia on Sunday April 27.
"It's tough coming to things like this," Ware said. "This is where it started for me – before I even decided to come here. But there's a lot going on at home and I kind of feel like my family needs me to be back there."
Wearing a blue baseball cap and a red Bryce Harper No. 34 Washington Nationals baseball jersey, Ware sat in the North end zone with Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Mangok Mathiang and several U of L teammates.
He posed for pictures. He signed autographs. He laughed with his friends, guys that Ware was not ready to call former teammates.
"When next Sunday comes, it's going to be real tough for me to even think about leaving this place," he said. "I don't even want to pack yet. I haven't packed at all."
Ware said he picked Georgia State because it is near his home in Rockdale County, Ga., southeast of Atlanta. He said he needed a fresh start, a place where there would not be a daily string of questions about the gruesome compound fracture that he suffered to his right leg during Louisville's Midwest Regional championship game victory over Duke in March 2013 in Indianapolis.
That was the game that ended Ware's sophomore season, inspired the Cards to win the 2013 NCAA championship for Ware the following week and transformed Ware into a national celebrity. Kobe Bryant called. So did Michelle Obama. Cards and notes of encouragement arrived from around the country.
After surgery to place a rod in his leg to start the healing of both bones, Ware returned ahead of schedule. By Nov. 15, less than eight full months after the injury, Ware played against Cornell, scoring five points in 13 minutes.
It was the most points Ware would score in any game last season, even though he played in eight more games His final appearance as a Cardinal was Dec. 17 when he made two baskets in five minutes against Missouri State.
Ware said he was kicked in the injured leg. That inflamed a tender area. Doctors advised him to slow down and concentrate on additional physical rehabilitation.
By the end of the season Ware was no longer sitting on the Louisville bench or attending home games. He did not travel with the team when it returned to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the same building where he was injured, to play Kentucky in the 2014 Midwest Regional.
"It was hard all year, honestly, just not being able to play," Ware said. "That's always been the toughest part. Those guys (his U of L teammates) were going out there and they were winning. That's what was important to me.
"Now I'm just finishing up the semester, working out, getting cardio in. I can finally start doing pick-up and things like that. I'm just getting better. I'm ready for the next school year."
For Ware, the next school year will be at Georgia State in Atlanta. The Panthers won the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title and then played in the National Invitation Tournament. Georgia State returns its top two players – former Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow and shooter R.J. Hunter, son of the coach Ron Hunter.
Actually, Ware expects Georgia State to have a formidable threesome next season – and the third player will be Kevin Ware.
Normal transfer rules would require Ware to sit next season before playing his final two years. But Ware has applied for a wavier to be immediately eligible.
"I'm playing next year, without a doubt," Ware said.