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Kevin Ware’s injury hit us all in the gut

With gruesomely broken leg, Louisville player shouts to team: ‘Win the game.’

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

It was the moment that made America turn away, a sickening reminder that all of those incredible athletes competing for a spot in college basketball’s Final Four are only made of flesh and bone just like the rest of us.

With 6 minutes and 33 seconds left in the first half of Louisville’s eventual 85-63 win over Duke in the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis on Sunday, the Cardinals’ Kevin Ware made a routine defensive play called a “close-out.” Ware took a running start and leaped toward Duke’s Tyler Thornton, trying to distract him as Thornton shot a three-pointer.

What happened next – after Ware landed badly and his leg bent in a way no leg ever should – was so gruesome that CBS wisely avoided showing the replay after an initial burst of them. His Louisville teammates immediately collapsed on the court as if linked to Ware by an invisible thread.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino started crying. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed on the verge of tears. For nine minutes, the game was delayed.

Ware broke his leg so completely when he fell that a bone was sticking out. It was reality TV at its most horrifying – a live sporting event in which sports suddenly didn’t matter anymore. Now let’s pause for a moment of perspective. Nobody died here. Pitino optimistically said he thought Ware could recover again and play basketball “in a year.” And if we all really thought about it, we could all come up with a list of a hundred national events that have happened in our own lifetimes that were far worse.

But this was so visceral that it will be a moment forever etched in the memories not only of those in the building, but for the millions of sports fans who were watching live. In that way, it most resembled the NFL’s Lawrence Taylor breaking Joe Theismann’s leg in a “Monday Night Football” game in 1985.

Theismann’s reaction after Ware’s injury was immediate, courtesy of Twitter. “Watching Duke/Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware,” he tweeted.

Ware screamed in pain on impact but composed himself enough before he was taken off the court and to the hospital to talk to his teammates. Said Pitino in a postgame TV interview: “Now remember, the bone is 6 inches out of his leg, and all he’s yelling is, ‘Win the game. Win the game.’ I’ve not seen that in my life.”

The Cardinals did win, blowing open the Elite Eight contest in the second half. At each timeout, Pitino said the team reminded each other to bring Ware home to Atlanta – both the player’s hometown and the place where the Final Four will be played starting Saturday.

By the end, the Louisville players had gotten themselves together. But in that initial moment, they were like the rest of America.

Prayers from the studio

Ware’s fall happened in front of the Louisville bench. The reaction of his teammates was like a horror movie in which the bad guy suddenly leaps out of a closet. To a man, the Louisville players grabbed each other, cringed and turned away.

Thornton, who actually made the shot Ware had contested, jogged back downcourt with his hand over his face, as if he were trying to “un-see” the injury.

At halftime, CBS wouldn’t show the replay again. Charles Barkley’s frivolity was gone. Prayers from the studio analysts were offered up as fervently as they had been by preachers in churches all over the U.S. on Easter Sunday a few hours earlier.

A national audience

Again, this injury needs to be leavened with perspective. This was not like what happened to Loyola Marymount star basketball player Hank Gathers. He collapsed in a West Coast Conference tournament game in 1990 and died shortly after a two-handed dunk (the rest of the tournament was canceled).

But Gathers’ death didn’t happen on a national TV broadcast. It was before Twitter and YouTube had even been invented.

Ware’s injury, on the other hand, digitally ping-ponged around the sports world in a matter of seconds. It was revolting and fascinating all at once – an unforgettable moment that everyone wishes they could just forget.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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