Louisville guard Kevin Ware lies in a hospital bed holding the NCAA Regional Championship trophy flanked by coach Rick Pitino, left, and former Louisville assistant coach Richard Pitino on Monday.
INDIANAPOLIS (USA TODAY) - Just before 5:30 a.m. on Monday morning, Kevin Ware Sr. was preparing to go to work at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, and he had no idea how he would make it through the day.
His mind was on his son, Kevin Jr., the University of Louisville guard who'd sustained a gruesome compound fracture of his tibia during the Cardinals' NCAA tournament win over Duke on Sunday.
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Then the father's cellphone buzzed. It was his son.
"Dad," Kevin Jr. said excitedly, despite his condition and the early hour. "They said I can walk today. They said I can walk."
Kevin Sr. said he tried to calm his son, tried to make sure he didn't go too far, too fast. But later on Monday, there was Kevin Jr., standing with the help of crutches, taking some gentle steps.
"It really brought my spirits up," Kevin Jr. said by phone from his hospital bed here Monday night, his voice groggy. "And it's kind of hard to keep your spirits up in a situation like this."
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Ware said he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support since his injury. He received calls from Dwight Howard and Charles Barkley. He received a visit from NCAA president Mark Emmert. He lied in bed and scrolled through his Twitter feed, where there were messages from NBA stars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo.
"I've never had this much support in my life," Ware said. "Like, I'm just so grateful for it, you know?"
The past 24 hours, Ware said, were mostly a blur. When he suffered the injury in the first half of the Duke game, planting awkwardly on his right leg as it snapped like a toothpick, he thought he had just sprained his ankle.
Then he saw the look of horror in Cardinals coach Rick Pitino's eyes. Then he looked at his leg and saw the chunk of bone that had punctured his skin. Then he immediately went into shock. Ware Sr., watching from New York, said he thought he was going to have a heart attack in his home.
Ware Jr. remembered Louisville forward Luke Hancock coming over and comforting him. He remembered Hancock saying a prayer, a powerful moment in a suddenly silent arena.
"And that made me just go into Kevin mode," Ware said. "I just told Luke, 'I'm good. Just win this game.' I just kept repeating that. I got louder and louder and Russ was there and I'm pulling their jerseys, trying to get in their face like, 'Ya'll got to win this game.' When they took me off the court, I heard so many cheers, and I'm like 'When I'm out of surgery, there's gonna be some good news."
Ware relayed this story to his father on Monday morning. He told him how he was just concerned about his teammates.
"That probably was the moment that really broke me," Ware Sr. said. "Like, 'Wow, my kid is my hero.'"
Louisville won the game, 85-63, and advanced to the Final Four. Within an hour after suffering the injury, Ware was in surgery. Soon after he woke up, he called his mother, Lisa Junior, and simply told her, 'Mom, please stay calm.'
Lisa and Ware's stepfather, Wesley Junior, flew to Indianapolis early Monday morning. Ware's girlfriend, Brittany, was at the Duke game and never left his side.
After his surgery Sunday night, Ware watched some highlights of the game and even held the Midwest regional championship trophy, which Pitino had brought to the hospital.
But he was so heavily medicated, he said, that when he woke up Monday morning he didn't remember any of that. Then he saw the trophy still sitting there, tall and shimmering, and the memories flooded back.
Ware received several visitors on Monday, including Pitino and his son, former Louisville assistant Richard Pitino. On Monday evening, a gift basket of chocolate and strawberries arrived from an unknown sender in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Although Ware was encouraged by his early progress, he knows there is a long road ahead. Doctors have told him he could play basketball by next October, which is just over six months away.
But for now, Ware's focus is on his team, his guys. He expects to be released from the hospital on Tuesday so he can return to Louisville. He is hoping to join his teammates in Atlanta for the Final Four; doctors just have to be certain his leg does not become infected.
"It's 50-50 right now that I'll go," Ware said, "but I'd say more on the good side of 50-50."
And that best sums up these trying times for Kevin Ware. Despite all he has been through, despite the injury and the pain and being separated from his brothers, he is still hopeful, still optimistic, still fighting.
Adam Himmelsbach writes for the Louisville Courier-Journal, a Gannett property.
Adam Himmelsbach, USA TODAY Sports