Kevin Ware grew up in Georgia with three siblings, all sisters, but after midnight on April 1, his 12 brothers back in Louisville were waiting up and wondering: What would he say to them next? The last time they'd heard from Ware, he was lying beside the court at Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium, a towel covering the six inches of compound-fractured tibia that was sticking out of his right leg, and in that moment of agony, quiet Kevin Ware grew into something larger than himself—selfless and soon-to-be-nationally-famous Kevin Ware, who said to a crew of traumatized Cardinals players, "Just win, don't worry about me, just win," over and over again. Those were the words that propelled them to beat Duke and reach the Final Four, the words that bonded him deeper with, he says, "the brothers that I never had."
Louisville's brotherhood communicates via a group text-message thread, and on this night, after they bused home from Indy, backup center Zach Price sent a photo of himself with the pit bull he'd just bought, Dutchess, clutched to his chest. This, of all things, is what triggered Ware to emerge from a postsurgical haze at Indy's Methodist Hospital and text an out-of-nowhere reply-all:
I still need my dog lol
Ware's teammates lit up the thread with exclamatory tributes. In the days before his injury, Ware had been talking about getting a dog of his own, so this was "a perfect text," says walk-on Michael Baffour, "because it took us all back to normal, knowing he wasn't dwelling on [his leg]." They stopped dwelling on it too—and Price and forward Wayne Blackshear went out that Monday night and bought their brother a dog, the hardest-headed male from the same litter that produced Dutchess. It was delivered in a ware number 5 custom-made doggie T-shirt, and Ware's girlfriend, Brittany Kelly, persuaded him to name it Scar, "to represent the journey back."
Everyone wanted to do something for Kev. His coach, Rick Pitino, had stayed an extra day in Indy to be with Ware in the hospital, and on Monday morning asked what he wanted to eat. "Hooters," was Ware's reply, even though it was 10:30 a.m. Kelly, a Louisville sophomore majoring in biochemistry, is also a waitress at the Hooters in Jeffersonville, Ind., and Ware is addicted to the franchise's chipotle honey chicken wings.
Pitino's theme for the 2012--13 Cardinals has been "humility." A lack of it, he told his players, was the one thing that could doom a team that was coming off a Final Four trip and was ranked No. 2 in most preseason polls. HUMILITY stayed written on a whiteboard in Louisville's film room all season, and a week before he would be announced as a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and win his second national championship on the same day, Rick Pitino, 60, waited for an Indianapolis Hooters to open so that he, his son Richard and Cardinals equipment manager Vinny Tatum could make a wings run for a backup sophomore guard who averaged 4.5 points per game.
There was one thing Ware wanted more than a dog or Hooters takeout, but he waited to ask until he was discharged from the hospital and back in Louisville's training room the following day. "You guys," he told his teammates, not lol-ing at all, "better go win two more games."
They flew to the Final Four with Ware in row 8 of the team charter, the seat in front of him folded down to make room for his bandaged leg, a fruit basket at his side. The outpouring of love and attention—he fielded calls from Oprah and Kobe and Michelle Obama—became a story in itself, and point guard Peyton Siva, the closest thing the Cardinals have to a household name, said that Ware was now "the most famous person I know." But while Ware inspired Louisville, he did not, ultimately, define its tournament. There were moments for all to savor in Atlanta.
Think of the run his coach went on, after leaving Ware's hospital bedside on April 1. The next day Pitino fielded a call from the Naismith Hall of Fame, informing him he had made the class of 2013, and when he put the call on speaker so that his wife, Joanne, could hear, the screen lit up with a text that said Go Gophers; it was his son Richard telling his parents he'd just taken the head-coaching job at Minnesota. "I was looking around for lightning," Pitino says, but his roll continued. Last Saturday one of the racehorses Pitino co-owns, Goldencents, won the Santa Anita Derby, qualifying for the Kentucky Derby—at the same time the Cardinals were beating Wichita State, 72--68, in the national semifinal. On Monday morning Pitino attended the Hall of Fame announcement with Siva; on Monday night, by beating Michigan 82--76, Pitino became the first coach to win NCAA titles at two schools. In the final seconds of the game, he made his way down the bench, embracing, one by one, the players whom he credits with renewing his love for coaching.
"One day I hope to get lucky like Coach P," says junior guard Russ Smith, who wore shoes during the Cardinals' 16-game, season-closing winning streak with his two mottoes written on the back: STAY POSITIVE AND GET LUCKY. The racehorse Pitino named after Smith, Russdiculous, was claimed at a $115,000 loss in February—"it wasn't worthy of that name," Pitino says—but Smith had dominated the tournament through the first five games, scoring a bracket-high 125 points. On Monday against Michigan his luck ran out, and Louisville needed someone else to carry its offense after falling behind by 12 in the first half. And what kind of brotherhood would these Cardinals be if they failed to pick each other up?