ATLANTA – The net was around Kevin Ware's neck in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. His fingers kept feeling the nylon as he talked.
"I can't stop touching it, you know?" the Louisville guard said. "I don't want to take it off my neck for nobody."
About an hour earlier, Ware had watched his teammates slice off small segments of net for themselves. They are the traditional spoils of basketball victory, but the Cardinals declined to cut them after winning the Big East tournament and Midwest regional. They only wanted the last nets of the season, the ones in the Georgia Dome. When it was Ware's turn, the Georgia Dome basket was lowered to court level so the injured Cardinal could cut the final cords.
The usual method is to climb up a ladder, of course, but Ware's surgically repaired right leg prevented any of that. He's a high flyer when healthy but ground-bound now. So the net came to him.
With crutches still clamped in his armpits, the sophomore was handed a pair of orange-handled scissors. One snip, two snips, three snips, four. His work was done. The net was his.
"Words can't describe how I feel," he said. "I'm so proud of these guys, it's crazy."
And with that, one of the most riveting college basketball stories ever had its fitting closure. When the comeback Cardinals had rallied from their second 12-point Final Four deficit to win the national title, beating Michigan 82-76, Kevin Ware's courageous and classy nine-day journey from agony to ecstasy was complete.
It began on his back in Lucas Oil Stadium, his right leg deformed by a gruesome compound fracture of the tibia against Duke. Everything after that awful accident was a show of strength, compassion and determination by an inspired team on a mission.
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It started when teammate Luke Hancock – who would become the Final Four Most Outstanding Player – rushed to Ware's side and calmed him amid the shock and agony. And that's when Ware summoned the wherewithal to gather his traumatized teammates and tell them, "Just win the game. I'm OK. Just win the game."
At the worst moment, this was the personification of the "Louisville-first" mantra coach Rick Pitino had been preaching. Team over everything.
"I'm not sure any of us could have beaten a great team like Duke unless he gathered us all together," Pitino said.
From there, Ware went to the back of an ambulance and emergency surgery at Methodist Hospital, not far from the stadium. For two days, he convalesced there, and the "Win It For Ware" mindset took hold with the Cardinals – not to mention a good portion of the nation. When he came back to Louisville, he was greeted with a hero's welcome, complete with massive media attention and get-well phone calls from first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, among countless others.
Then it was back to his home state of Georgia for the Final Four, a basketball festival that Ware could only watch but still impacted – at one critical moment Saturday night against Wichita State, he hobbled up onto the raised floor to exhort his teammates during a timeout. Finally, when the teammates Ware referred to constantly as "my brothers" finished the deal, there was Kevin Ware wearing his net.
[Slideshow: Best GIFs of the NCAA tournament]"It means everything," he said. "… It's one of the greatest feelings I've ever had. Probably the best feeling. We've been through a lot this season, but we made up our mind to get the job done."
Ware watched "One Shining Moment" with his best friend, Chane Behanan, draping an arm over his shoulder. Behanan, who had been so upset by the sight of Ware's injury, transformed from a slumping sophomore into a terror in Atlanta. The power forward had 25 points and 21 rebounds in two games, ripping down 11 boards in the second half alone Monday night and just wearing out the Wolverines inside.
Not far away was Hancock, watching the video after scoring 42 points in two games in a brilliant display of clutch shooting. When Michigan raced to a 12-point first-half lead on the strength of little-known freshman Spike Albrecht's stunning 17 points, Hancock provided the emphatic answer. He scored 14 points in 2 minutes and 33 seconds, stroking four 3-pointers in a dazzling eruption, and signaling that the Wolverines were not going to get away from Louisville.
Hancock's gravely ill father, Bill, was watching from the front row behind the Louisville bench – the first games he's been able to attend this NCAA tournament. What Luke did to calm Kevin Ware in Indy, he did to inspire his dad here. When it was over, Hancock went to his frail, 70-year-old father and repeated the question he asked him Saturday night, "How was that?"
It was good. Storybook good.
"I kind of feel like this pushed him," Ware said of Hancock. "Going out there and playing for his dad."
[Slideshow: Cardinals celebrate national championship]
With the title won, the media clustered around Ware one more time in the Louisville locker room. "Good Morning America" got him to tape a promo, which he aced: "I'm Kevin Ware of the Louisville Cardinals and we just won the national championship. Good morning, America."
Everyone else had questions. It had been harder to watch than he thought it would be, but the end result was what it had to be. As the crowd thinned around Ware, I asked him what he learned about himself in these remarkable nine days.
He thought for a minute, then said, "I'm a lot tougher than I honestly thought I was."
He's tougher than most of us thought any basketball player could be. And he will need that toughness in the months to come, as the long rehab process continues.
"I'm going to come back as strong as I can," Ware said.
And that championship net around the neck? When he finally gets around to taking it off, where will it go?
"I'm keeping it right in my room," he said. "I'm hanging it up somewhere, then hopefully getting another one next year."
That may be too much to ask. But after the inspiration Kevin Ware provided to his Louisville Cardinals teammates on this national championship run, no dream seems too outrageous.
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