Luke Hancock has helped guide the Cardinals into the NCAA title game. (USA Today Sports)
ATLANTA – After Luke Hancock saved the Louisville season Saturday night, he did the obligatory postgame CBS interview at midcourt.
And after telling a national audience about his brilliant, 20-point performance against Wichita State, Luke had to make one more stop on the way to the locker room: the front row of Georgia Dome seats behind the Louisville bench.
"How was that?" the junior forward asked the frail, 70-year-old man standing before him.
And so Luke embraced his father, Bill, who willed himself to be at this Final Four. In a Louisville tournament run awash in emotion, this was the most poignant moment nobody knew about.
Kevin Ware's shocking broken leg and reaction to it captivated America, largely because it played out in plain sight. Luke Hancock's anguish over his gravely ill father has been a private issue until now. That's the way Luke has kept it, submerging his emotions and playing on, his teammates watching in amazement.
"He's so strong, it's unbelievable," Mike Marra said of Hancock. "The kid just …"
Marra paused, then wiped his eyes. His voice caught as he tried to talk.
"It tears at my heart," he said.
Bill Hancock has an ailment the family did not want to disclose. But sources say it is extremely serious.
He traveled to the Big East tournament because seeing Luke compete in Madison Square Garden is on his bucket list, but he only felt well enough to make it inside the Garden for one of Louisville's three games. Some thought that might be the last time he'd see Luke play. Bill did not attend any of the Cardinals' first four NCAA tournament games.
But the Final Four is different. So Bill summoned the strength to make the trip with his family from Roanoke, Va., to Atlanta.
It was not easy.
"We almost didn't come," said Luke's mom, Van, also becoming emotional as she talked. "Luke would've come up and gotten him and drug him down here if he had to."
Luke told his dad that if he didn't feel up to it, don't bother coming to the Georgia Dome, just watch on TV. But there was the man Luke calls "Dad-o," in the front row Saturday night, proudly greeting his youngest son after the biggest game of his life.
"It meant everything," Van said. "I forgot there's 70,000 people looking at us. It felt like it was just us."
Now there is one more game to go for a national title. There is one more chance for the co-captain of the Cardinals to inspire his teammates through word and deed.
And there is one more chance for Bill Hancock to watch Luke play ball.
"It's been tough," Luke said Sunday. "It really has. But I'm just so happy to see him here."
Athletes are trained to focus on the game, not what surrounds the game. It is a vital component of competition.
But Robert Hancock knew his little brother was keeping an eye on the front row behind the Louisville bench Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.
"You could tell he was kind of looking over his shoulder at Dad," Robert said.
This was not a distraction, though. It was an inspiration. Luke Hancock played the greatest game of his Louisville career Saturday night, and perhaps the greatest game of his life.
The No. 1-seeded Cardinals needed every one of his points to rally past No. 9 seed Wichita State, 72-68. Down 12 points with 13 minutes to play, Louisville got a storybook lift from walk-on Tim Henderson, who improbably made two 3-pointers in a span of 42 seconds. Given that sudden jump-start, Hancock took it from there.
The transfer from George Mason, who had borne the brunt of fan dissatisfaction earlier in the season for a slow start after offseason shoulder surgery, played at a new level with everything on the line. A guy averaging 7.7 points per game scored 13 in the game's final 11½ minutes.
He drove into the teeth of the Wichita defense for consecutive layups, finishing the second one left-handed and contorting his body to get the shot off. A few minutes later, he swished a 3-pointer for Louisville's first lead since the first half.
With two minutes left and the Cardinals up two, Hancock took a hit-ahead pass from Peyton Siva and never hesitated. He fired a 3 from the wing that was perfect, giving Louisville control of the game. That was followed by another steely drive, then a free throw for a three-point lead with 8.8 seconds left.
The second foul shot missed, but Hancock sprang in to tie up Wichita's Ron Baker, forcing a jump ball that gave Louisville possession and finished the Cardinals' great escape.
A consummate team player, this was for Louisville first. But it was for Dad-o, too, even though nobody outside the Hancock family or the Louisville locker room knew it.
"That was the proudest moment for him," coach Rick Pitino said.
"I know it meant the world to him to put that kind of show on," said center Stephan Van Treese.
"Luke," said Henderson, "is probably the guttiest person I know."
The accidents began at 18 months.
That's how old Luke Hancock was the first time he was rushed to the hospital. He fell getting out of the bathtub, knocking out two teeth and necessitating surgery.
He was thrown from a horse and trampled a few years later. There was a major bicycle accident flying down the hill from the family home to the neighborhood pool. There were soccer injuries, too.
"He was our accident-prone child," Van Hancock said.
None of it kept him sidelined for long. There was always another team to join and game to play – or, lacking those, another wrestling match to have with big brother Robert. Bill Hancock was an unathletic CPA, but the youngest of his four kids (two from a previous marriage) was always playing something.
That didn't translate to stardom, though. The best Luke could do in terms of college interest coming out of Hidden Valley High School in Roanoke was an offer to walk-on at nearby Virginia Tech. Convinced he could do better, Luke went to Hargrave Military Academy to improve his game and earn a college scholarship.
"We banked our entire college fund on that one year at Hargrave," Van Hancock said. "He didn't have a scholarship there."
That all-in investment worked out. Kevin Keatts, then the coach at Hargrave, got the attention of George Mason assistant Chris Caputo, who loved Luke and sold head coach Jim Larranaga on him.
He had two highly successful seasons at George Mason, earning a reputation as a selfless leader who would do whatever it took to win. Personal glory was a foreign concept.
"I don't think he's ever read an article about himself," Van Hancock said.
But then Larranaga left for Miami and took his entire staff with him. Luke decided to transfer.
Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech, who didn't want to offer a scholarship before, had one for Luke now. But Luke instead went with Keatts, now an assistant at Louisville.
In the course of a single summer on campus, Luke showed his new teammates and coaches enough intangibles to be named a team captain before he'd ever played a game. That remarkable development sprang from the inherent leadership the new guy brought with him.
When some players were late for an early morning weight session, Luke told them it was unacceptable. He did it without offending them, but there was no mistaking his intent: We all work together, and nobody gets away with slacking off.
"He carries himself in a way that he's just got that 'It' factor," Henderson said.
But along the way, an accident-prone kid became an accident-prone adult. Luke has had two shoulder injuries that required surgery – one occurred at George Mason and the other last summer playing what his mother describes as "a silly pick-up game" at Louisville.
The second one was the worst – bad enough that coach Rick Pitino was unsure Luke would recover in time for the season.
"In the beginning of the year it took him a half hour of warm-ups just to lift his arm above his shoulder," Pitino said. "I said [to trainer Fred Hina], 'Is he going to play this year?'
"He said, ‘No one but Luke will play. Toughest kid I've ever seen since I've been a trainer.' "
Until scoring 20 points on Wichita State, most of America had one vision of Luke Hancock: the player who came to the aid of Kevin Ware.
A week ago in Indianapolis, when Ware's right leg gruesomely snapped, most of the Cardinals went to pieces. Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear fell to the court. Russ Smith sobbed. Even Pitino was shaken. Their despair was almost as unnerving as the sight of Ware's tibia protruding through his skin.
But one player kept it together and went to Ware's side. That was Luke, the team captain. He kept Ware calm and said a prayer over him, which in turn helped Ware gather himself and call his teammates over for the now-famous, "Just win the game" exhortation.
"That's my son's nature," Van Hancock said. "I was just overwhelmed with pride. Luke's a very caring, sensitive, compassionate person."
Luke's compassionate response became part of the weeklong Kevin Ware media immersion. Everyone was talking about Ware and his extraordinary response to the trauma, and eventually people got around to talking about his teammate's act of support, too.
Luke graciously answered questions about it whenever he was asked, as if Ware's broken leg was the only adversity in his life. He never once let on what he'd been dealing with this entire postseason.
"You can't imagine how he feels," Marra said. "It's remarkable how he's handled all this. There aren't words to describe how strong he is."
There were no words needed Saturday night. When Luke Hancock hugged Dad-o in the Georgia Dome, a precious family moment spoke for itself.
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