Hoops City: Louisville basking in teams' success
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One by one, students walked slowly past the food court in the Student Activities Center on the Louisville campus and waited their turns to sign the makeshift 3-by-5 foot poster of injured basketball player Kevin Ware.
‘We stand behind you, Kevin! Get Well soon #5!’ the poster read.
Meant as a tribute to Ware, it could also have been a giant get-well card for a school torn between despair for his devastating injury and excitement for one of the best sports days in school history.
Ware broke his right leg in two places Sunday, a horrifying injury that inspired the Cardinals to beat Duke and earn their second consecutive trip to the Final Four. Hours later, the Louisville women’s team upset defending champion Baylor and 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner.
Still, amid the celebration, students, faculty and fans couldn’t get Ware out of their minds — and they didn’t seem to want to.
“It was hard to look at,” freshman Ishmail Wheeler said of Ware’s injury after signing the poster. “I felt for him.”
All around the city, fans expressed their mixed emotions.
Steve Stober scrolled news of the Cardinals’ win and Ware’s injury on the digital sign outside his business, Stober’s Tax Services in Old Louisville.
The messages included “Final Four Baby!” “Go Cardinals!” and “Pray 4 Kevin Ware,” interspersed with the business phone number. Similar messages congratulating Louisville went up last year when the Cardinals also made the Final Four.
“We take our basketball seriously here,” said Stober, who added that even though this is his busiest season with tax day, April 15, rapidly approaching, he’ll be watching the Cardinals take on the Wichita State Shockers come Saturday.
“These things don’t normally meet up very well,” Stober said. “But I’ll get to do them both.”
Ware had surgery late Sunday and remained at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis on Monday. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino and his son, Richard, stayed in Indiana with Ware, keeping the Midwest Regional championship trophy in the room.
He could return to Louisville today and Pitino has expressed a desire for Ware to accompany the team to Atlanta, site of the Final Four and Ware’s hometown. It’s unclear, however, if Ware will be medically cleared to make the trip. He said on Facebook that “the first step is always the hardest one to take”
University President James Ramsey, who was sitting seven rows behind the Louisville bench when Ware was hurt, said during a news conference Monday that “it was a great day to be a Cardinal,” but added that it was “heartbreaking” to see Ware break his right leg in the first half while trying to block a shot by Duke’s Tyler Thornton.
Ramsey said Ware will get the best medical care and rehabilitation the university can offer.
“It was just an empty feeling,” Ramsey said. “All of the sudden, the game wasn’t important.”
The grief-stricken Cardinals played that way for a few minutes after Ware was wheeled out of Lucas Oil Stadium on a stretcher, his leg covered. But they regrouped to take the lead at halftime and then pulled away from the Blue Devils in a dominant second half to earn their way into the national semifinal.
The win triggered a celebration on campus, where students hollered out of windows and honked horns while driving around the university. The big party was downtown Louisville, on Broadway, where students and fans tied up traffic for hours. Louisville city officials reported few incidents.
That didn’t mean it was totally tame.
“It got really crazy,” said Louisville freshman Ronnie Lucciano, pulling out his cell phone to show video and stills of the revelry.
“Folks started burning tires,” Lucciano said, referring to cars doing burnouts, “and that’s when the helicopters started coming, shining their lights to keep folks under control.”
On Monday, the antics had calmed down, but the excitement remained high.
Anticipation will no doubt build by Saturday when Louisville’s men (33-5) face ninth-seeded Wichita State at the Georgia Dome. A year after losing to rival Kentucky at the Final Four in New Orleans and watching the Wildcats go on to win their eighth national championship, the Cardinals have rolled over opponents this postseason and are favored to bring the title back to the Bluegrass State again.
Louisville has thrived behind guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, center Gorgui Dieng and stifling pressure defense that has keyed three NCAA tournament wins of 20-plus points. That has fans here closer to realizing the dream of the city’s first national championship since 1986 and eager to stoke the flames of a rivalry with Kentucky, which failed to make the tournament this year and lost in the first round of the NIT.
“It’s always been that, but now it’s picked up, obviously, with back-to-back Final Fours and Kentucky winning the national championship last year,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “It means a lot in our state.”
The Cardinals women’s team held on to beat Baylor and the imposing Griner, 82-81, in Oklahoma City on Sunday, but still has to get through second-seeded Tennessee tonight to give Louisville teams in the men’s and women’s Final Four simultaneously for the first time. On Monday, they were basking in a sea of praise and congratulations — including a post-game locker room visit from Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant, who posed for pictures with the Cardinals.
Men’s point guard “Peyton Siva texted me last night, and he’s like, Coach P is going to text you,” said Cardinals forward and Louisville native Monique Reid. “I mean, that was pretty cool getting a great game from them, and they played an awesome game, too.
“It was just really exciting, and everybody from high school was texting me. I’m the hometown kid, and I know everybody is really excited, and my dad was crying on the phone. It was very good.”
On campus, students were especially proud to wear Cardinals red and black. It was hard to find anyone not wearing the combination in the student center.
A memorable year that began with Louisville’s football team upsetting Florida in the Sugar Bowl just gets better.
“It’s just unbelievable with the men and women winning,” said senior Asaad Ali, who attended the game in Indianapolis. “The men winning was special, but what the women did sealed the day for us. It was bittersweet because of Ware and the moment, but it was a great day.”