Sometimes the human element of a sports story is drowned in the tide of larger-than-life personalities and the growing wave of big money. In college and the pros, significance can be poorly grafted on to what is really just a game at the end of the day–a highly lucrative, at times riveting game–but a game just the same. This happens via overreaching profiles in magazines or sappy segments tacked on to pre-game analysis and halftime shows. Often, it’s a lame attempt at manufacturing interest, but sometimes, the human element of a game or team story is pushed to the forefront when we least expect it, and the games we watch are exposed as just another way to pass the time. The points scored and wins and losses recede quickly into the background and the audience’s focus is turned to the fact that players and coaches are our fellow men first, and athletes and professionals second.
Such was the case last Sunday evening, when a game played to determine who would advance to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four became a reminder of the gruesome potentialities that abound when athletes compete against one and other for sporting glory. Louisville reserve guard Kevin Ware’s injury has been witnessed and documented thoroughly during this past week, and here on the eve of his team’s Final Four match-up with the Wichita State Shockers, it’s surely grabbed your attention at some point, whether you pay attention to the tournament, basketball, or sports in general. That’s because it was a chilling moment for us all, as people, and leveled the differences between rabid fan and casual witness.
To put it simply, the young Louisville Cardinal’s broken leg is among the worst things I’ve ever seen on television. While anyone who witnessed what happened could clearly sense and attempt to relate to the sophomore’s pain as he lay brutally hobbled on the sideline, Louisville players and fans experienced Ware’s injury in ways that the rest of the country probably isn’t privy too. I was unlucky, or lucky, or whatever–I was there–to watch the game between Duke and Louisville with a bar full of Cardinal fans in a watering hole within the River City’s limits, and nearly all had gathered with the hope of watching their team continue towards the Final Four in Atlanta and beat a perpetually despised foe in the Blue Devils from Durham, NC. My friends and the others in attendance, along with a bevy of Cards fans at the game in Indy, were at a fever pitch from tip off, but that vivd enthusiasm completely disappeared when Ware’s injury occurred. Their vigor waned even further when it was replayed a moment later.
Like so many around the country, but with a particularly heavy local heart, they had a visceral reaction to seeing a fellow human being in unknowable pain. One that happened to wear the jersey of their favorite team. Ware was certainly suffering, and he wasn’t the only one. The reaction of those around me, and their reaction to the reaction of his teammates on court, was gripping. Suddenly this wasn’t a basketball player injured, but a man in pain. Those weren’t his teammates crying, or vomiting, or writhing in agony at what they saw, they were Ware’s friends. The crowded barroom, like any other in the area, wasn’t filled with fans, but empathetic fellow terrestrial travelers. One and all were staggered by the reality of the situation, and the outcome of the game seemed to vanish from the collective priority list. It had been replaced by a hope that Ware’s pain could be eased and that his friends on the court could pull themselves together after witnessing the horrifying sight of a young man’s leg collapsing on a routine jump into the air, and the unbearable view they had to the bone protruding from the skin stretched across his shin.
To say the air went out of the room would not do the change in mood justice. Knowing my own squeamish sensibilities, I couldn’t watch the replay at the time. I have since, but wish I hadn’t. I should have trusted the sage voice of Jim Nantz, who called it the worst basketball injury he had ever seen during the broadcast, or one of my radio favorites Jim Rome, who tweeted that it was one of the most terrifying things he had ever seen.
What followed looked more like theater of the macabre than a basketball game. Ware’s teammates reacted in a way that lent even more of a desolate air to the arena than his exposed shin bone already had. They reeled and grabbed at each other on the bench, which you can see from the heart-wrenching GIF after the jump, and only Luke Hancock was able to gather himself enough to walk over to Ware as he lay near the sideline, twisting with an agony I don’t even want to begin to imagine. Hancock comforted Ware with a hand on his chest, no doubt trying to calm a man that was headed for the medical definition of shock, while the rest of the country tried to deal with the literal use of the word.
Louisville and Duke players looked as if they had just witnessed a fallen brother succumb to the injuries of war, unable to control their emotion as they wept and collapsed to the court. Basketball no longer mattered, but everyone in the arena and the millions watching at home knew that no matter how horrific what they just witnessed was, and how difficult it would be for the players–especially the Cardinals–to continue, the game had to go on. Louisville would have to play the rest of the first half and the entirety of the second with the specter of their fallen teammate hanging over them and the vivid images of his injury replaying in their minds.
It would have been easy for Louisville to fall apart and let what was a close and tightly contested first half turn into a run away for Duke in the second. Instead, Louisville emerged from the locker room on fire offensively and defensively, with their ball pressure, team speed and tenacity on the interior strangling the Blue Devils the rest of the way. They opened up a lead that would continue to grow until the final buzzer sounded, dispatching of their Elite Eight foe by more than twenty points. I’m not sure what Coach Rick Pitino said to his kids at half time, but it must have been a speech for the ages. I tweeted it shortly after the game and still believe it as I look back: it showed an incredible amount of will for Louisville to do what they did and speaks to their collective character and talent to honor their teammate with an astounding effort down the stretch.
And incredibly, even cut down by an injury that did its best to destroy his leg, Ware had a part in the victory. His injury may easily be regarded as the most visually disturbing and physically catastrophic in the history of sports, but his only message to the team while being attended to on-court was: “just win the game.” Those that heard his words were stunned that he could manage to inspire his teammates, and I sit here at my keyboard equally impressed with that young man’s heart and intestinal strength. There he was, with an injury that might end his career, his future physical wellbeing hanging in the balance, pain both physical and emotional rushing through his body, and he still had the guts to gather the energy to cheer his team towards victory. In other circumstances Ware could be described as unflappable, but as it was and still is, the better description is heroic.
If I were to stay in line with the way I usually process a situation like this here at BJH, I would talk about how Ware had been such a solid contributor to his team over the last few games, how he was a game away from a homecoming in his native Atlanta, how his teammates proved their mettle in spades, and how like many times before, Bo’s career-ending injury came to mind and the threat of unexpected tragedy was again foremost in my thoughts. But that’s per usual–I am a constant champion of how sports tell us much about being human. This however, was the humanity of sports. Ware and that game between Louisville and Duke are beyond the scope of my usual sporting lens. It was all too real to be analogized, or interpreted, or applied in an appropriate context. It’s the memory of what was happening on that Sunday, what happened, and how everyone both near and far felt in that instant and beyond. It was the incredible journey from tragedy to triumph within the span of a college basketball game.
I’m a Louisville transplant and Ohio State fan first, but if I wasn’t already pulling for the Cardinals to win it all now that the Buckeyes are out and my local pride begins to shine, I don’t see how anyone, myself included, can pull for another squad to win the NCAA championship. With Ware on the mend at a staggering clip, the Cards riding an athletic and emotional high, and my city excited to the nth degree, the “human element” of this story has officially transcended that oft-used bromide. No matter any prior allegiances, I’d say we’re all Louisville fans the rest of the way.