Kevin Ware lay flat on his back and lifted his leg. He had two knees where one should be. And that’s when I yelled.
I didn’t yell in disgust. Although, I later learned that the team—save Luke Hancock—did that collectively. I didn’t yell out of nausea, but, as Rick Pitino admitted after the game, there was plenty there to make one feel ill.
I yelled because in that moment I thought I saw twenty-seven years of suffering taken out on one broken, undeserving student athlete. I yelled because, watching the game on my own, I suddenly felt alone as I watched. There was his usual knee, and then there was the additional knee he had suddenly grown in his shin. I yelled in pain with him, and then I got up and left the room to go yell in another room.
Louisville athletics have been through a lot. In words I wrote before the Kentucky game this year, I observed that everything the City’s Team has, it had to earn. We’ve fought for a lot this year and, for people of my generation—people who were in diapers when the last title was won in 1986—we felt that finally, finally, we would have a team that would give us the chance to tell the stories to our kids we were once told about people named Ellison, Wagner, Thompson, Hall, Bridgeman, Griffith, and others. As Mike observed at the outset of the tournament, we would have our piece of the legend transcending us all.
I yelled because, in a very brief moment, I thought that the team and all it has won had been taken from us in the cruelest turn I’ve yet seen on a basketball floor. I thought we were staring a curse square in the face, and I thought the curse was laughing at us.
Other teams have argued for being cursed. The Cubs have their goat—and that one seems to have stuck for a bit. The Red Sox had their Buckner moment. But all of those did not involve the visceral reality of watching one of your guys—someone who we’ve spent hours talking about and watching perfect his game, someone old enough to be your son, or your student, your friend, or your roommate—writhe in the floor in front of a bunch of his friends and total strangers, the victim of one of the more abruptly violent injuries in sport. What’s worse—there was no one to blame for this: no poor hit, no unsportsmanlike conduct, no villain. Just the cold reality that the legend of this game would not be a Laettner-esque shot or some indescribable Russdiculousness but something else entirely.
I yelled, and then I left the room. I did not watch the rest of the first half. I went into another room and continued yelling. I yelled because no one deserves what happened. I yelled because I thought back to when I was 18 years old and I realized there was no way I could have gone back out there to play—and I didn’t expect these kids to. When I stopped yelling, I did what any sane person would do.
I did laundry.
And somewhere between the colors and the permanent press, I came back to the computer and I turned off the video. I turned on Bob Valvano and Paul Rogers. I kept posting to Card Chronicle, and together all of us—everyone in that arena, and everyone here—witnessed the extraordinary.
In our contemporary sports world, it has become popular to analogize athletic contests with war. There is Nike ProCombat and its Adidas equivalent. Teams wear camouflage jerseys and shorts. They play on aircraft carriers. Companies are blurring the lines between entertainment and combat and, although I am not a soldier and do not pretend to speak on behalf of those who serve, I must say it often makes me uncomfortable. War is not sport.
But when I watched the postgame press conference, it struck me that what the young men on that team went through, while not combat itself—certainly not modern, mechanized war—was no less emotional for them. They saw one their best friends, whom they’ve laughed with, run with, won with, and lost with, crumble in agony before them. The violence of his injury was not just visually traumatic for them. It was audibly traumatic. They were forced to process that while being asked to play the game of their lives. And, at the end of all of that, they were forced to give a press conference to talk about it. I could not do that at that age. I still probably couldn't.
"Tell us, Russ, how did it feel to watch your friend’s leg snap in half?" Ask yourself, at the end of that game, how would you have answered that question?
Some members of the media and sports community (who I will not name here) questioned if we made too big of a deal about Kevin’s injury. "After all," some said, "this isn’t war and he didn't die." I agree with them, this isn’t war. However, we often forget that these young men are charting a path between adolescence and adulthood. Just like the soldiers their age fighting and dying in battlefields many can’t find on a map, they’re being asked to go above and beyond for their unit, their team, and with that comes the risk of seeing those you care deeply about hurt in ways you never thought possible.
I yelled more in the second half. Only this time, when I yelled it was through tears and in complete joy. While I watched the game, I saw the same images you did: Kevin and the guys gathered around him, Gorgui hugging Russ and Chane, and Luke holding Kevin’s hand. I saw the clips of Coach K and the Duke players, and heard their praise for the team after the game. I heard in the voices of Bob Valvano and Paul Rogers emotion, if not tears, on multiple occasions and I cried with them.
But I don’t think it was just me. The city cried while those young men fought with our name on the front of their chests and their names on the back.
And in the end they won and I realized there was never a curse at all. A curse is an acceptance of a defeated will and a surrender to a senseless burden of tradition. I knew better, of course. This is a team that has been through too much already. Fought too hard in practice and in games. And, yes, probably even fought through the pressure and adversity we’ve forced upon them as fans because we, in our illogical and passionate way, want them so badly to win and to write their names into our legends.
No matter what happens in the Final Four, the one image and one quote I will carry with me from this team, and I’m tearing up again as I write this, will be those made by Kevin Ware and Luke Hancock. Luke, the captain so many doubted throughout this season, walking calmly up to the court, kneeling down, and grabbing Kevin’s hand while patting him on the chest. He stayed by his side until the rest of the team collected itself and joined, when Kevin told them, "Just win the game." When asked after the game why he did it, Luke observed that he just didn’t want Kevin to be alone.
I yelled in the second half because I was taught by these players—these young kids, the same age as people whom I, professionally, may some day teach—an entirely new meaning of what it means to be a fan of Louisville, to persevere and endure, and set aside concerns of the self to achieve a greater cause. With a team like this, with a city like this, Kevin Ware and these Cardinals will never again run alone.
Because we, all of us, are the City’s Team and that is something worth yelling about.