An Innocuous Play, a Gruesome Injury
By PAT BORZI
INDIANAPOLIS — It happens in every game, thousands of times in the course of a season. A player breaks free for an open jumper. An off-the-ball defender jumps at him. Whether the shot falls or not, both players run back downcourt and play on.
For Louisville’s Kevin Ware, a 6-foot-2 sophomore reserve guard originally from the Bronx, that innocuous play in the N.C.A.A. Midwest Region final ended with a gruesome injury. Ware broke his lower right leg in two places as he landed near the Louisville bench with 6 minutes 33 seconds left in the first half of the Cardinals’ 85-63 victory.
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said that Ware was expected to have surgery Sunday, and that it would take a year to recover. “It was very difficult to look at and watch,” Pitino said. “But he’s a brave young man, because all he kept saying was, ‘Win the game.’ ”
In a first half loaded with physical play, Louisville rattled Duke with a full-court press, making the Blue Devils work for every shot. Ware, who averages 4.6 points, converted a 3-point play in a brief appearance. He returned with 8:09 to play in the half.
The Cardinals led by 21-17 when Duke’s Tyler Thornton broke free for a 3-point jump shot from the right wing. Ware dashed from the edge of the foul circle and jumped at Thornton to try to block the shot. Spinning in the air, Ware landed with all his weight on his right leg. The lower part of his leg buckled unnaturally, and he slid into the Louisville bench. He lay on his back with the lower leg dangling grotesquely, broken at the middle of the shin.
“When he landed, I heard it,” Smith said. “Then I saw what happened come out. And I just fell.”
Pitino said a broken bone punctured the skin. “I went over and was going to help him up, and then all of a sudden I saw what it was,” he said. “And I literally almost threw up. And then I just wanted to get a towel to get it over that.”
Thornton yelled and grimaced. “I was freaked out,” he said. “He lifted his leg in the air and I saw where his leg was broken. It was bent in a weird way it shouldn’t have been.”
As Cardinals trainers surrounded Ware and covered his leg with towels, Louisville’s Smith, Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan fell to the court, crying. Behanan, Ware’s close friend, dropped to all fours. Pitino wiped away tears. Blackshear helped Behanan to his feet, and Gorgui Dieng, himself visibly shaken, put an arm around Behanan to console him.
“When he went down, oh my God, it scared me,” Behanan said. “I never cried for nobody like that. Kevin is like a brother to me. We’re always together outside of basketball, just doing things.”
After about nine minutes, medical personnel slid a board underneath Ware. Louisville players were huddling near midcourt when Pitino called them over — Ware wanted to tell them something before he left.
“He was laying down, crying and saying: ‘Win it for me, y’all. I’m good. I’m going to get surgery and be back at it like I never left,’ ” Behanan said.
Moments later, while the crowd chanted his first name, Ware was lifted onto a stretcher and wheeled away. He was taken to Methodist Hospital. When play resumed, Smith pulled the top of his jersey across his face to wipe his eyes one more time.
“It was really hard for me to pull myself together, because I didn’t ever think in a million years I would see something like that, and it happened especially to a guy like Kevin Ware,” Smith said. “I was completely devastated.”
The former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who sustained a grisly leg fracture in a 1985 “Monday Night Football” game against the Giants, wrote on Twitter: “Watching Duke/Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware.”
The halftime locker room was solemn, Behanan said. The second half was no contest. Louisville shot 59.3 percent and scored 50 points to win easily.
“I think 9/11 and the loss of a child were probably the two most difficult things in my life,” said Pitino, who lost an infant son to congenital heart failure in 1987 and his brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. “This was very traumatic for us to overcome, because we all witnessed it right up close.”