Jay Bilas, ESPN basketball analyst, recently released his book Toughness: Developing true strength on and off the court. But what I witnessed earlier today, during the Louisville-Duke regional final, goes beyond any definition of toughness. With 6:33 remaining in the first half, Louisville guard Kevin Ware jumped out to block a 3-point attempt by Duke’s Tyler Thornton. When Ware landed, his right leg buckled under him as his tibia fractured and splintered. It was a horrific injury which CBS thankfully only replayed twice. As Ware’s teammates saw the severity of the break, they buckled, cried, and sank to the floor. The emotions that come with watching something like this are immediate and intense – fear, sadness, disbelief. As Coach Pitino immediately came to Ware’s side, his stomach was churning. And then he heard Ware telling him, “I’ll be fine. Just win the game.” Before he was taken to a hospital for emergency surgery, Ware repeated this to everyone multiple times, all while part of his tibia bone was piercing through his skin. Play was stopped for quite a long time and when the game resumed, Louisville’s squad seemed to be dazed (as you would expect given the situation), missing four of the next five shots and a couple of free throws.
At halftime, and at every timeout, Coach Pitino told his team to win it for Kevin. Guard Peyton Silva later said “We had to do this for Kevin. That’s our whole thing. Coach told us that we need to get him back home.“ (He was referring to the fact that the Final Four will be held in Atlanta, not far from where Kevin played high school ball.) Louisville played an inspired second half, dominating the Duke squad. “I’ve been doing this a long time” Coach K said. “Man, they were good. They were terrific today.” Pitino said “When it’s a team thing like that, and all the players had to see that, it’s just how you respond from that moment, and they responded in an unbelievable way… This is a very close, close basketball team.”
Two parts of this story help us define toughness. First was Ware’s ability to think about his team when his leg was so mangled and while he was experiencing fear and agony. The second was the response of his teammates to pull together as they did, for Ware and for their team. As the game came to a close, Ware’s closest friend on the team, forward Chane Behanan, put on the #5 jersey of Ware.
Ware has a long recovery ahead of him, during which he will undoubtedly experience a range of emotions. But if his attitude right after the injury is any indication of his toughness (which it seems to be), he will likely do quite well in the many months of rehabilitation. Still, he will need his teammates during this process just as they needed his words to help them pull together. And that is a huge part of resilience – having the closeness of a team or family or group of friends to support you through the toughest times.
More on the process of coming back from an injury in future posts…