Bradley: Ware's grace on display in worst moment

This time a week ago, Kevin Ware was a Louisville substitute who’d never scored more than 10 points in a collegiate game. On Thursday, the sophomore guard from Rockdale County High was waiting to read — via remote hookup from the team’s Buckhead hotel — the “Top Ten” list on “Late Show with David Letterman.”

On Sunday in Indianapolis, Ware broke his right leg in a manner that rendered the replay of his injury must-not-see TV. Speaking with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via phone Thursday, Ware said he hadn’t watched the clip. “I don’t want to see it,” he said. “I heard it was one of the worst injuries you could imagine.”

And yet Ware also said: “All these things that have happened, it’s almost like a dream come true. All these people who have reached out to me have touched my heart.”

In the worst moment of his young life, Ware summoned the grace to look beyond himself. Lying on the edge of the court in a hushed Lucas Oil Stadium, awaiting the arrival of the stretcher that would carry him to Methodist Hospital, Ware told coach Rick Pitino he wanted to speak to his Louisville teammates. In words that will resonate as long as there’s a March and its attendant Madness, he told them: “I’ll be fine. Just win the game.”

The Louisville players who openly wept over Ware’s injury, scored 50 second-half points to defeat Duke 83-61 and book passage to the Final Four. Afterward every Cardinals player called Ware the inspiration.

Said Ware: “I don’t think it was as big a deal as some people think. I did what I would normally do. I appreciate how people have responded — calling me an idol and a hero — but that’s not something I was trying to do.”

From a hospital in a distant city, about to go under anesthesia, Ware thought to phone home. His mother, Lisa Junior, had watched the game in Conyers, and he knew what her reaction would be. “I was waiting to go into surgery, and a nurse let me use her phone,” he said. “I called her and said, ‘I need you to calm down.’”

In the days since, the sophomore has become the most famous collegiate player in the land. He was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the photo of him in his hospital bed holding the Midwest Regional championship trophy being flanked by Pitino and his son Richard was plastered across every Internet platform.

Ware has only a hazy memory of the Pitinos bringing the trophy into the room Sunday night. “I was so drugged up after the surgery,” he said. When he awoke Monday and saw it by his bed, he wasn’t sure what it was. Then he knew.

He was released from the hospital Tuesday and returned to Louisville. He flew with the team here Wednesday, and he’ll be on the bench, crutches and all, when the Cardinals face Wichita State on Saturday at the Georgia Dome. “I’ll be talking to (his teammates) like I always do,” he said.

What of those teammates, the ones who wept and fell to the floor after seeing Ware crumple, the ones who made their postgame celebration less about winning the Midwest Regional than about winning one for K-Ware?

Ware: “It’s hard to explain how I feel about them. I wasn’t surprised at how they reacted. We’re brothers. If one of us goes down, we all go down. That’s why I tried to tell them, ‘I’m fine. I’m going to be good.’”

After major surgery, is he indeed fine? “I’m really not in a lot of pain. They say the leg should heal in eight to 12 weeks. Everything’s looking good.”

A guy breaks his leg in a way that makes people avert their eyes, and four days later everything’s looking good? That’s the steely example that Ware, without trying to be an exemplar, has set. He’s home for the Final Four. His best friend was with him in the hotel, and his family would come by soon, but this is no pleasure trip. He’s here for his team, here to help Louisville win a national championship.

As he waited to tape his “Letterman” segment, Ware said: “Everyone who knows me knows I’m not a big media guy.” But that, in the most wrenching way imaginable, is what he has become, and he has handled sudden celebrity in the way you’d expect from a guy who was worried more about his teammates and his mom.

This isn’t to say absolutely everything is bliss. He’s hobbling on crutches and trying to accommodate as many media folks as possible, and there are, as he’s learning, a lot of media folks. “I’m so tired,” Ware said. “I’ve never been this tired in my life.”

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