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INDIANAPOLIS – Kevin Ware lay on the raised hardwood of a basketball court constructed in a football stadium and feeling far more pain, we would bet, than any padded professional ever had endured on a fall Sunday in that building.
He was prone, his lower right leg dangling and useless, the shocked victim of a turn-your-head moment so awful that his teammates and coaches and even nearby journalists were left with tears, choked back words and even throats full of bile by what they had seen of this fallen basketball player for the University of Louisville.
And if you were among the tens of thousands who sat nearby, watching in hand-over-mouth wonderment, you had no idea what was happening. You were more likely to know the facts at 50 miles than at 50 feet.
This much was clear: Something seriously unsettling had happened, your first clue coming from the sight of three Cardinals sitting and kneeling around the free-throw lane near their bench. Time slowed, and questions flowed. You saw that play was stopped and that the Duke players were crowded around their bench. You saw Coach Rick Pitino and others scurrying around UofL’s bench, trying to help Ware as he writhed in shocked agony.
Only if you watched from those seats in that stadium, you had no idea how he got there. You didn’t see the seemingly routine landing after a leap to swat at a shot, didn’t see the snap of Ware’s tibia. You didn’t hear the whistle or know why the players reacted as they did.
When you realized finally that someone was down, you struggled to identify who it was, resorting to the process of elimination as a way to circle No. 5 in the program. You saw men get towels for him, elevate his head, pat his chest in a manner that suggested to the mesmerized that perhaps he was receiving CPR. You saw the medics and heard the gasps when they rolled in a stretcher. You saw the teammates milling around, their heads in their hands or towels.
But there was no announcement in that stadium. There was no replay on the giant screens around and above the court. There was no understanding for several minutes of exactly what everyone close to that corner of the court knew so agonizingly well, that a man was injured in as gruesome a fashion that any of them would witness in their lives.
Farther away, where nearly 35,000 stood at their seats – perhaps three fourths of them wearing red and black – heads were down as cell phones were being manipulated for information. Some texted friends watching at home. Others called family members. Some checked Twitter or Facebook for the observations of those sitting courtside.
Messages received by Duke fans were shown somberly to those wearing red, and everywhere the words manipulated your emotion, powerfully precise terms such as “terrible,” “horrid,” “shocking,” “ugly,” “horrific,” “sickening,” until the most gifted wordsmiths had run out of anything remotely adequate to describe their own emotions.
Videos were posted on YouTube. Links were shared. Still photographs emerged from The Associated Press, focusing more on the anguished teammates more than the incapacitated Ware.
And then you heard the chant, starting quietly and almost imperceptible. KEV-IN, KEV-IN, KEV-IN, reverberating as they strapped him to the gurney and wheeled him away.
It would be hours before you had the complete understanding provided by the candor of so many, that you at last understand the poignancy of Luke Hancock‘s calming words to his friend, of the tears shed by coaches and broadcasters and giant athletes, of the exhortations of the man in pain to “win the game!”
Until then, all you knew for sure was that you had witnessed the best coaching performance of Pitino’s seminal career, that you had watched a band of brothers so united in cause that they played to their zenith. Sports too often are likened trivially to war, games mistakenly likened to death. It’s pitifully wrong to equate the bravery on the playing field with the battlefield. There is pain and suffering on both, but sports seldom contains the worst of mankind, of human horror played out.
Yet, here was a fallen man exhorting those who loved him, inspiring all who witnessed what he said, even long after the final horn had celebrated Louisville’s resounding victory and advancement to the NCAA Final Four.
Yes, these were the facts and moments we sought on Sunday to embrace, to understand, to record. And we filtered from an unforgettably awful accident the emergence of something quite wonderful.
The first sign came, too, in the most appropriate way for an Easter Sunday. We saw these large and strong men, tears in their eyes, grasp hands in a huddled circle and bow their heads in prayer for Kevin Ware.
They prayed not for victory but for healing for him and strength for all. A little while later, sufficiently enflamed by their coach’s words and Duke left in their rousing performance, they emerged with Ware’s jersey waving above their heads. As he lay in a hospital bed awaiting the surgeon’s knife, they celebrated the moment for which they had planned and he had demanded.
They had won for him and for them. And that we all understood very quickly.