National inspiration Kevin Ware thriving in spotlight after injury forced him out of his shell

Rick Pitino has observed Kevin Ware this week and been amazed at the transformation in his formerly taciturn guard.

"I'm blown away by the whole thing," Pitino told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday. "I'm watching him in these interviews and thinking, 'Is this Kevin Ware?' "

This is indeed Kevin Ware. The new Kevin Ware, who has quickly gone from pitiable to admirable. The open, emotional, articulate, expansive Kevin Ware.

As the Louisville sophomore guard suddenly became a national figure amid horribly adverse circumstances, the changes in his personality have been profound. A young man predisposed to saying very little and emoting even less has gracefully and gratefully returned America's embrace. From the very seconds after his tibia gruesomely split and stabbed through the skin of his right leg, he has comported himself like a leader and shared more of himself than ever before.

I had interviewed Ware a few times over the course of his two years at Louisville. On a team full of lively characters, he was the silent partner. The brief comments he did make were uttered in a soft, monotone voice, and he was uncomfortable with the attention.

"I'm one of the quietest guys in the world," he said.

"A man of few words," Pitino said.

[Related: Louisville plans tribute for injured guard Kevin Ware]

Given my experiences talking to Ware, I feared the attention surrounding his injury might overwhelm him and possibly drive him further into a shell. Instead, he has flourished. To the delight of Pitino and others who know him, this is like watching a barren tree blossom.

The sentences flowed from the man of few words Wednesday – first in a smile-filled, tear-stained ESPN interview with Rece Davis, then in a media conference. Words of appreciation. Words of encouragement. Words of determination. Words of a newly acquired wisdom and confidence, too.

A brief sampling:

Ware on the need to stay calm and speak to his teammates before leaving the floor in Lucas Oil Stadium: "I had to pull out a magic trick. If I wouldn't have said what I said … I don't think we would be in the Final Four. I really don't. … It's not just about me. It's never just about yourself. My mom told me selfish people never get far."

Ware on the Final Four: "We still have a job to do. I'll recover and I'll be fine, but we've got to win a championship."

Ware on what he will do if the Cardinals do win the championship: "I'm going to climb that ladder [and help cut down the Georgia Dome nets]. [The injury is] not stopping me."

Ware on whether his injury happening on national TV affected his reaction: "Even if the lights weren't on, it would've been the exact same. I wouldn't have cried. I would have thought about the team first."

[Related: Kevin Ware's injury not the worst adversity Rick Pitino had to handle]

Ware on the new sidekick he met for the first time Tuesday: "I got a pitbull puppy that I named 'Scar.' We've got a connection already. We're pretty much best friends. I knew I was going to be off my feet for a while and I needed something to entertain me. [Louisville teammates] Wayne [Blackshear] and Zach [Price] picked him up and brought him to see me in this little Ware jersey and he was looking at me and I was looking at him, and it was real emotional."

Ware on his new status as an inspiration to many: "This is bigger than just me. A lot of people are looking at me as a role model now. A lot of people are looking at how I handled the situation. … I didn't know this situation would spark the entire country."

It has. From Michelle Obama to a legion of celebrity athletes to millions more casual fans, the Kevin Ware story has provoked deep response.

Despite the horrific nature of the injury, it's been impossible to spend too much time feeling sorry for Ware. Because he's never felt sorry for himself.

"Kevin has gone from a quiet, unsure man to a very mature man," Pitino said. "In the last month he's come out of his shell and taken on a leadership role. And this experience will help him grow. He's already risen to a level that I've seen very few players who would be able to do."

[Related: NFL players reach out to Kevin Ware after horrific leg injury]

Pitino is right: Ware was already showing signs of growing up and opening up before this injury. In mid-February, Pitino made Ware his primary backup at both guard spots, behind both point guard Peyton Siva and shooting guard Russ Smith. That gave him more playing time and more responsibility, and he handled both impressively.

"He started talking more," Pitino said. "He became more extroverted."

Ware astonished regular Cardinal watchers when, after a breakaway dunk against Notre Dame in the final regular-season game, he actually did a quick dance and then gestured for the Yum! Center crowd to get on its feet. Nobody had ever seen that Kevin Ware.

In the Big East tournament final, Ware scored nine points and made all three shots he took. In the first three games of the NCAA tournament, he averaged 20 minutes and 6.7 points, playing his best basketball of the season.

It was as if he needed to be depended on. Once Ware knew how important he was to Louisville's success, he started to realize how good he could be.

And then came the fateful close-out on Duke guard Tyler Thornton's 3-point shot, the awful consequences of a bad landing, and his almost superhuman response.

In a span of a few seconds, Kevin Ware's identity changed. A shy, reserved, relatively anonymous college basketball player got hurt. And out of it, improbably, came a worldwide spokesman for grace and selflessness in the face of wrenching adversity.

"If that was the last time I played basketball," Kevin Ware said, "I left my mark."

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