On March 16, 2011, CardsFan922 wrote an "internet letter" to the 2010-2011 Louisville Men’s basketball team. It was a wonderfully written piece about how much we all loved this team, one of the most popular teams in Louisville history, and how the upcoming NCAA tournament wouldn’t change how we felt about this team, no matter what the outcome.
But then the unthinkable happened.
Morehead State defeated the Louisville Cardinals in their first game of the Tournament. And for me personally, the way I looked at this team was changed forever. And if you’re reading this, it’s probably changed the way you think of them too, whether you can admit that or not. It’s not that the loss lessened anything they accomplished that year. The season that that group of players put together was truly remarkable. And its not that I’m in any way angry or bitter towards that team. They gave me, as a fan, more that year than I ever anticipated they could. Yet, whenever anyone brings up that team to me, the first thing that will pop into my head is the Morehead State game. The image of an injured Preston Knowles sitting on the bench. Devonte Harper drilling a three from the top of the key. Kenneth Faried
fouling blocking Mike Marra’s last second attempt. Is that fair to those guys? Of course not. But is it the truth? For me, they will forever be the team that lost to Morehead State.
If you were to ask someone who their favorite Cardinal has been on this year’s, or even last year’s teams, there are plenty of valid answers you could get. Maybe you’re pulled towards the star: Russ Smith. The under-sized scoring machine who’s as unpredictable on the court as he is off. Maybe it’s been Peyton Siva or Gorgui Dieng’s accomplishments both on and off the court that have caught your eye, as they’ve represented the program better than almost anyone we can remember. Or maybe it was the loyalty that McDonald’s All-Americans Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear showed during their recruiting process, coupled with their seemingly unlimited potential that attracts you.
When people have asked me this question over the past two years, I’ve had a different answer than most would expect. Maybe I just wanted to be different. Or maybe I just really liked Kevin Ware. What was it about the lanky kid from Atlanta that I liked so much? It wasn’t just that we shared the name Kevin (although for 10 year old Kevin Spradlin, that would have been more than enough). For me it was something else.
After that loss to Morehead State, Louisville basketball seemed to collapse around us. Terrence Jennings, for reasons still unclear to most of us, decided to go pro. Assistant coach Tim Fuller surprised everyone by taking a job at Missouri after just one season at Louisville. Cardinal commit Negus Webster-Chan soon de-committed and followed Fuller to the Tigers. Tony Woods, the big man from Wake Forest who was supposed to replace Jennings (because we all knew there was no way Gorgui Dieng was ready for that), decided not to come to Louisville, and flirted with Kentucky before finally winding up at Oregon. And worst of all, five star recruit, and the "future of the program," Rodney Purvis decided to de-commit from that Cards as well, eventually landing at NC State. (Webster-Chan and Purvis both announced this week they’ll be transferring from their respective schools after just one year. Tony Woods’ college career was ended last week with a loss in the Sweet Sixteen to...the Louisville Cardinals. But I digress.) Amidst all this bad news, there appeared one glimmer of hope: Kevin Ware.
After Bruce Pearl was fired from Tennessee for multiple recruiting violations, most of his recruits decided to de-commit. Among them was Kevin Ware. The 4 star, top 100 guard had seriously considered playing for Louisville before picking UT, so naturally, Louisville became an early front runner to become the next school to earn his services. I had never followed recruiting much to this point in my life as a fan, but in my desperate need for good news, I latched on to the Kevin Ware Saga. I watched Youtube videos of his high school games. I followed him on twitter, constantly checking for anything that might reveal where he was headed. When most Cardinal fans went to the Derby Classic game to see Behanan, Blackshear, Zach Price, and Angel Nunez, I was in the stands to see Kevin Ware. I checked recruiting websites everyday for updates on his recruitment. And boy were there updates. First Louisville was his favorite. Then there was the visit to UCLA and the rumors that he’d committed on the visit. Then we found out UCLA never offered him and Louisville was still the favorite. Then, before we knew it, he committed to Central Florida. This was all taking place during the height of Brandon Bender’s Reign of Terror following the recruitment of DeMarcus Smith, so the very mention of Central Florida turned a lot of Cardinal fans off to Ware. Many began to ask, "Is Kevin Ware really worth all this trouble?" But due to a technicality, Ware couldn’t sign a Letter of Intent with UCF since he had already signed one with UT, his recruitment was re-opened. And when all the dust settled, Kevin Ware was a Louisville Cardinal.
Yet when the season started, Kevin Ware was no where to be found. Ruled ineligible by the NCAA, Kevin was forced to sit out the first semester. When he finally got on the court, it was clear that he didn’t fit into Pitino’s system yet, and he struggled to find a niche on the team. When the team struggled throughout Big East play, it was natural, although completely unfair, for the fanbase to blame the new guy. And quite frankly, it made me furious. This was my guy everyone was blaming! Why couldn’t they see this? I knew how good he was. He just needed a chance to show it.
This season, he was supposed to get that chance. Reports out of practice were that no one looked as improved as Ware. But as the season wore on, fans grew impatient waiting for Ware to finally break out, especially with how good the team as a whole was playing. Kevin was definitely showing improvement, as I’d be the first one to tell people, but he was by no means a star. And then, right after a crushing three game losing streak, Kevin Ware was suspended from the team indefinitely. Rick Pitino said Kevin wouldn’t be back for a long time. People began to question if we’d ever see him in a Cardinal uniform again. And once again, people began to ask the question, "Is Kevin Ware really worth all this trouble?" And for the first time, as someone who had supported him the whole way, I started to ask myself the same question.
Well, we all know what happened next. In typical Pitino fashion, Ware was back just one game later. And this time, no one could question, he was a completely different player. The improvement was undeniable. Kevin was scoring in the 7-10 range every night, became a force on defense, and even showed us a little "saucy behavior." He capped it off with the best game of his young career in the Sweet Sixteen against Oregon, when he was called on to play extra minutes as Peyton Siva sat on the bench in foul trouble.
Watching these Cardinals play in the tournament, my thought all along was that the only thing that could stop them from a National Championship was an injury. When Kevin went down against Duke, my first thought was, "well, there it is." As with most of us, I didn’t realize exactly what happened at first glance. When they first showed Kevin lying on the ground, Luke by his side, and the trainers running towards him, I assumed he’d blown out his knee. Then they showed the slow-motion replay and I saw what really happened. My feelings of hopelessness with our championship hopes dashed were now coupled with the chilling realization that I’d just watched my favorite Cardinal play for the last time. Needless to say, my mind was running a little wild. Emotions were high. Cut me a break, guys.
This would have been a horrible ordeal no matter what Cardinal was injured. But this was my guy. Multiple friends texted me: "How are you doing?" "Are you crying??? I know Kevin’s your favorite." And I didn’t have an answer to give them. Suddenly the result of the game didn’t matter to me. All I could think about was Kevin. In my head, I selfishly thought about how the championship I'd waited so long for, and almost two years of support for a kid was going up in flames. But more than that, it just didn’t seem fair that Kevin, or any of the guys were having to go through this. I left my family’s living room to go collect my thoughts alone (This is a bigger deal than you think. My family is very superstitious about always sitting in the same seats when we get to watch games together. You know how they struggled for a few minutes after the game started back up? Yeah. My bad. I was out of the room). After I’d composed myself for the second half, I watched a team come together in a way none of us ever could have imagined. Everyone here knows the story, so I wont go on about how the team ended up pummeling Duke by 22 points to advance to their second straight Final Four. As Chane Behanan joined the celebration wearing Kevin Ware’s number 5 jersey, and Rick Pitino told the story of the now infamous "Don’t worry about me. Just win the game," quote, I allowed a tear or two to finally escape me. In the 16 seasons I can remember watching Louisville basketball, I had never experienced anything like this. For someone who has never seen the Cardinals win a championship, this was the peak.
Sure, it’s easy to say I’ve never seen such a horrific injury. None of us have. But it was the reaction from the players, coaches, and fans of all teams that will stay with me much longer than the gruesome images of Kevin’s broken leg. Support from the hated Big Blue Nation. Shots of Coach Pitino wiping away tears. Players literally collapsing on the floor in tears. It’s almost surreal to think about now. And it was definitely surreal to see then. I haven’t watched any replay of Kevin’s leg breaking since CBS first showed it. But I have re-watched the video, careful to block out the injury with a couple of my fingers. I did this to watch the rest of the team’s reaction. It’s not that I enjoy watching 20 year olds cry, or even grown men for that matter. But I wanted to fully appreciate how much they cared. Most of all, I wanted to see Luke Hancock. Jumping off the bench as everyone else, completely understandably, recoiled and backed away, to put a hand on Kevin because he just didn’t want him to be alone. The team was distraught for their fallen brother. But they were able to wipe away their tears and go back out, and win one for Ware.
A reaction like that isn’t just rare, it’s completely unheard of. And that is what I will always remember about this team. They may end up being National Champions, or they may not. But when people mention this team years from now, I will always think of a family who cared about each other above all else. They showed us, every one of them, that this is more than just a game. And as CardFan922 said two years ago, no result this weekend can change that for me.
Someday, hopefully soon, Kevin Ware is going to step back onto a basketball court, wearing a Cardinal uniform. And no fan will ask, "Was Kevin Ware really worth all this trouble?" Here’s hoping he steps on that court as a defending National Champion.