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KEVIN WARE HAD LONG AGO LEFT ON A STRETCHER; THE GASPING OF 34,657 FANS AND THE RETCHING AND BAWLING OF THOSE 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, 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 and the Cardinals ahead 21--20. That jersey was at Indianapolis's Methodist Hospital, where Ware had been taken in an ambulance. But Louisville packs backup jerseys for each game, and at halftime, while coach Rick Pitino delivered 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 who 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 once. "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 HIS MOTHER THE WEEK BEFORE, WARE HAD expressed so much certainty that the Cardinals would roll through Indy, beating Oregon in the Sweet 16 and then Duke, that she and his stepfather, Wesley Junior, chose not to make the trip. 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 Cardinals did indeed dispatch the Ducks, taking a 16-point lead in the game's first nine minutes and, behind a gutsy 31-point showing by Smith—he was saddled with what Pitino called a "ridiculous cold" and coughed all game—staying comfortably ahead the rest of the way.
Duke was up next, and the Juniors went to a friend's house for what they thought would be a party. 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 two best teams left in the bracket, playing within one point of each other in 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, a Louisville assistant 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 upcourt, 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."