Kevin Ware had long ago left on a stretcher; the gasping of 34,657 fans and the retching and bawling of the few who were too close to the horrific scene of his broken and protruding right tibia had subsided. And in the final minute of Louisville's 85--63, Elite Eight rout of Duke on Sunday, while the Cardinals and their fans permitted themselves a few moments of bittersweet joy, the sophomore guard's number 5 jersey reappeared.
It wasn't the one Ware had on when he tumbled to the floor in front of the Louisville bench with 6:33 left in the first half in Indianapolis. That was at Methodist Hospital, where Ware had gone straight from the court in an ambulance. But the Cardinals pack backup jerseys for each game, and at halftime, while coach Rick Pitino was delivering an impassioned message about Ware—"If we don't get him home to Atlanta [near where he attended high school, and the site of the Final Four], it wasn't worth playing this season"—equipment manager Vinny Tatum had an idea to get some of Ware's spirit back in Lucas Oil Stadium.
With just over eight minutes left, and the Cards' three-point halftime lead having ballooned to 16, Tatum sent a manager to the locker room to dig Ware's jersey out of a duffel bag and bring it to the bench. In the last minute it was handed to sophomore forward Chane Behanan, who calls Ware his "blood brother" and had been so distraught after the injury that Pitino had to remove him from the game for several minutes. Behanan took off his own jersey and replaced it with Ware's, and thumped his blood brother's number with his fist as the final seconds counted down. "We did this for Kevin," Behanan said. "I just wanted him to be there."
Ware's mother, Lisa Junior, watched from Conyers, Ga., as her son's jersey reappeared on CBS. "It looked like Chane was wearing a spandex shirt, he had to pull it on so tight," she said. Her Kevin is a wiry 6'2" and 175 pounds, while Behanan is 6'6" and 250. Junior laughed and teared up at the same time. "To see Chane do that?" she said. "It was so touching to know that those guys—Kevin's brothers—were thinking of him."
In phone conversations with Junior last week, Ware had expressed so much certainty that the Cardinals would roll through Indy, beating Oregon in the Sweet 16 then Duke in the Midwest Regional, that she and his stepfather, Wesley Junior, chose not to make the trip. The NCAA tournament can be a costly grind for parents, and Lisa, a dispatcher for Comcast, and Wesley, a tech ops supervisor for the same cable company, had to work, so they figured they'd wait for a homecoming at the Georgia Dome. Ware had been averaging 20.0 minutes off the bench in the NCAA tournament and was ecstatic, Lisa said, "that he might be a part of a team in the Final Four."
The Juniors went to a friend's house on Sunday for what they thought would be a party. And as they watched Ware's flying close-out at Tyler Thornton's three-pointer, and the camera's following the ball through the net, they saw Ware fall in the periphery, and it didn't seem like a big deal. "We thought that maybe he just sprained his ankle," Wesley says.
One second the game was everything fans and media wanted it to be—the best two teams left in the bracket, playing within one point of each other at 21--20, the early makings of a classic—and the next second a player was staring in shock at the lower half of his right leg, which was bent at an impossible angle. The scene inspired visceral feelings of horror and panic and nausea.
Wyking Jones, one of Louisville's assistants who was seated at eye level with Ware's leg, due to the raised court, leaped out of his chair screaming, "NO!" Behanan turned to run up court, realized what had happened to his friend, and he collapsed on the floor. Cardinals guard Russ Smith started bawling. As forward Luke Hancock put it, "The whole crowd turned white."
But the horror felt by fans, and even by Ware's teammates and coaches, was nothing compared with what his mother experienced when CBS showed the play again. "When I saw the replay," Lisa said, "I lost it."
And what could a parent do then? Lisa could not run to her son, could not call his teammates or his coaches on the bench. The image of his leg buckling will stay with her forever. But the helpless uncertainty was almost worse.