INDIANAPOLIS — The first time, my eyes didn’t register what I saw. So I looked a second time. Then I wished I hadn’t looked the first time.
Kevin Ware’s leg.
Ware made the kind of play that happens dozens of times every game. A Duke player went up for a shot, and Ware jumped to defend it. Then he came down.
I didn’t see it happen. I was across the court and on the other end of press row, and I was watching the ball. But the fans on that end made the low, sick groan you never hear at any other moment. I looked up, and Ware’s teammates were running away.
They came back, of course. But in that moment they did the natural human thing. They were horrified, and they ran.
Russ Smith, the star guard, looked like he was about to throw up. Forward Chane Behanan, Ware’s closest friend on the team, collapsed at the free-throw line. He started crying. So did his teammates. So did the coach, Rick Pitino. So did the fans.
They never showed the replay in the arena. That was good.
We watch these games, all these young people flinging themselves around, and it’s easy to forget just how hard they push their bodies. Kevin Ware is listed at 6-2, 175. In person he’s the skinniest guy on the floor. You run so hard, you jump so high, and sometimes physics intervenes.
It happened with 6:33 left in the first half. So much game left. So the Cardinals did exactly what happens in sports. They took the terrible moment and converted it to fuel. Even Ware did it. Win the game, he said over and over as they brought out his stretcher. When they went in at halftime, Louisville ahead by three, Pitino told the team that if they let up, Ware didn’t mean as much to them as they thought. That sounds like an awful thing to say, here in the cool light. But the things that bring teams together in a locker room can be profane and sacred at the same time.
Louisville was better anyway. But: When Ware got hurt, the Cardinals were up one. When the final horn sounded, they were up 22.
At the end, Behanan put on Ware’s jersey, bounded over to the Louisville fans and pointed to the name on the back. In that moment, nobody thought about the pain and the surgery and the long rehab and the shadow on a young man’s basketball life. In the moment, that terrible thing had brought inspiration, and out of inspiration, joy.
The court at Lucas Oil Stadium is elevated. There’s a three-foot dropoff to the floor. Behanan sprinted for the locker room and leaped off the edge of the court. I turned my head. I didn’t want to see him land.