Six months removed from having led the school to its third national championship, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino said during Wednesday’s inaugural American Athletic Conference Media Day in FedExForum that what he deemed mostly intriguing about last year’s title run was how the nation rallied around his program during what he describes as the “most difficult moment” of a coaching career that spans nearly four decades.
Pitino was referring to the horrific injury sustained by then-sophomore guard Kevin Ware, who fractured his right leg on national television against Duke in the Elite Eight game while trying to block a three-point attempt by Tyler Thorton, but landed awkwardly.
Coaches and players from both teams as well as a majority of the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd were visibly bewildered by Ware’s injury. Pitino, witnessing Ware lay motionless on the court, was overcome by emotions while doctors tended to the fallen player with just over six minutes remaining in the first half. Fortunately for the Cardinals, they managed to pull together on behalf of Ware, a Bronx, N. Y. native who relocated to the Atlanta area to play high school ball. Louisville went on to defeat Duke to seize to its second consecutive Final Four berth, ironically in Atlanta, where they edged Michigan, 82-76, in the national title game as Ware witnessed it all unfold behind the Cardinals’ bench.
“I think it was a very difficult thing to look at, being up close and personal,” Pitino told MemphiSport. “And then it was very difficult to see the emotion of your basketball players when that happened. But I think obviously I have a lot to be proud of personally. I was so proud for the emotion and love my team showed for Kevin and vice versa and the courage he showed. I think it was a great story because of the spontaneous emotions of both parties.”
Although Louisville, which led, 35-32, at the half against Duke, outscored the Blue Devils, 50-31, in the second half and coasted to an 85-63 victory to advance to the national semifinals, Pitino said it wasn’t until after he visited Ware at a nearby Indianapolis hospital and got a positive prognosis from doctors that he finally was able to savor what had transpired against Duke.
“I was relieved because when I went to the hospital that night, the doctor said, ‘We have 48 hours to get by the infection and he will make a full recovery,’” Pitino explained. “When that was told to me, I was able to relish in the fact that we were going to another Final Four.”
A number of current and former professional athletes reached out to Ware to offer their support
and well wishes in the aftermath of his freak injury. Surprisingly, months before the Cardinals were scheduled to visit the White House to commemorate their third NCAA crown with President Obama, Ware fielded a phone call Michelle Obama.
As for when the 6-foot-4 Ware — who reportedly was seen dunking a basketball six months after his gruesome injury — will return to full drills, that still remains unclear, Pitino said. The Cardinals begin practice this week and open defense of their national title Nov. 9 against the College of Charleston in the Hall of Fame Classic. Louisville, which finished 35-5 last year, is ranked as high as No. 2 in several preseason polls, most notably the Associated Press Top 25.
“I really don’t know how to answer that because he’s training…retraining his mind and his leg to get back on the basketball court,” said Pitino, when asked if there is a timetable for Ware’s return. “I think the physical (aspect) is going to be easier than the psychological. But Kevin’s a pretty mentally tough kid. I don’t think it’s a major problem. But we’re really about a month away from seeing him compete.”
Also on Wednesday, Pitino said he is pleased that Louisville and Memphis will resume playing twice a year for the first time since the 2004-2005 campaign when the schools were members of Conference USA. Memphis comes to the American from C-USA. The Cardinals became an AAC entrant after spending the past eight years in the Big East.
“We’re going to continue to play Memphis because it is our longest and one of our best rivalries,” said Pitino, who was named to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame the same day the Cardinals won the national title. It’s a great city. I thought it was a natural to have the (AAC) tournament here, which we’re very excited about. Memphis, I think, has top 10 fan support in the United States. And it’s great to continue our long relationship.”