ATLANTA -- Kevin Ware grabbed his crutches and stood twice during the game. First time, he had words for his struggling Louisville teammates during a tense and hectic timeout:
"Defense!" he yelled, hopping inside the huddle, sending the team trainer into shock. "Defense is going to win us this game!"
Second time, somebody had words for him:
"K.J.! Hey, K.J.!"
K.J.? Only one person called him K.J., as in Kevin Ware, Jr. And that would be Kevin Ware, Sr. That would be the father that the son hadn't seen in almost a year, and definitely not since Ware suffered a horrific leg injury and became the most sympathetic sports figure in America, inspiring Louisville to reach this, the Final Four.
"I know that voice," Ware said.
Ware had his head down, busy saying a prayer, too afraid to watch Luke Hancock at the free throw line, the Cardinals leading scrappy Wichita State by only two with nine seconds left. And right then, you knew this was about to be a magical moment. You knew this was where the too-good-to-be-true story involving an injured player and his motivated teammates was about to take another twist. Which it did, all at once.
Hancock made the first free throw, missed the second, then forced a jump ball in Louisville's favor. Big swing there.
And Kevin Ware Sr., wearing a Yankees cap and a look of desperation because his flight to Atlanta was delayed, squeezed past security -- "That's my dad! Let him through, please!" said Kevin Jr. -- and gave his son an even tighter squeeze, the kind to which only family can relate.
As the final seconds ticked, putting Louisville into Monday's championship game, the Wares were busy getting reacquainted with a hug that neither wanted to end.
"I love you, son," the father said. "You're my hero."
The son? He just cried.
And so maybe this journey is pre-ordained, then. For Louisville to rally from 12 points down in the second half, and capture victory only after Ware's father entered the Georgia Dome to finally come face-to-face with his son just before the clock and Wichita State expired, well … is this really happening? It is. The Cardinals are certainly nobody's Cinderella -- they're the only top-seed left in the tourney after all -- but they're on a Disney-like roll anyway because of a gruesome injury that'll add a unique flavor to the title game.
Monday's meeting with Michigan will be partly about Ware, and he won't even play. He'll sit on the end of the bench, his surgically repaired right leg resting high, his face splashed across the country, his story still resonating. Louisville is wearing special warmups in his honor. When Louisville entered the building Saturday, he got the loudest cheer. When a short pre-game video montage was shown on the big screen, he was the only non-starter -- and non-active player -- who got a cameo. There were cutout Kevin Ware cardboard masks for the fans, courtesy of Amar'e Stoudemire of the Knicks, who paid for them. And controversially, there were Ware t-shirts worn in the stands.
And while Ware didn't score a single big basket, guess what? His replacement did. If Louisville gets the performance from Tim Henderson on Monday that he gave Saturday, will there be any doubt? Henderson hit the shots that changed the game. His back-to-back three-pointers after Louisville fell behind by a dozen points managed to awaken the Cardinals and jump-start the rally.
"When Kevin went down last week," said Henderson, "he said, `I believe in you.' That meant a lot. I took to heart what he said. I never forgot it. I thought about it the entire game."
Ware said: "I told y'all about Tim. Maybe some people were surprised. I wasn't surprised."
Ware was surprised only once Saturday, when he heard someone calling his name and looked up to see a familiar face.
Ware was born in New York, but left before junior high when his mother took the family to Atlanta. His father, who taught him how to play, who took him to the right places to learn ("The Bronx river projects. In the 'hood"), stayed behind. In a quiet moment shortly after the Wichita State win, Ware Sr. wanted to set the record straight, before anyone reached any conclusions.
"He lives in Atlanta and I live in New York but that's my son," he said. "There's no problem between us, no distant relationship. This isn't one of those situations. I'm in his life. I've always been in his life. We speak all the time."
The father wasn't at the Duke game, when the son fell and caused the country to turn away. He was home, watching on TV and barely caught a glimpse of what happened. Of course, all anyone needed was a glimpse.
"I thought I was having a heart attack when I saw that," he said. "He called me at 1:30 that morning after the operation and I missed it. He called at 6 and said, `Dad, I'm good. I can stand on my feet.' I just about lost it. I was so happy."
His flight from New York detoured through Chicago and then delayed, finally touching down in Atlanta at halftime. Some Louisville fans on the plane recognized him and took pictures. He grabbed a taxi and made it to the Georgia Dome then through the stands, finally reaching the Louisville bench. And, the hug.
"That hug meant everything," said the son. "Seeing each other is hard for us because I'm in school. It's been a long time. A long time."
The Cardinals hardly played a perfect game against Wichita State. They were exposed offensively early, and also on the glass, before their pressing defense bailed them out. Their depth helped, too, which was mildly surprising in light of missing Ware. Of course, you could say he was there in spirit. That's what this is all about, anyway.
Monday at the Georgia Dome, there will be two Kevin Wares in the house, one cheering, one inspiring. And the older Ware, who'd rather see his son play, is fine with that.
"He's been going through this, becoming a man through this," he said. "As a player he was just coming into his own when this happened. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he's looking out for his teammates. That's the kind of kid he is. As the only boy in the family, he always looked after his sisters, to be the protector.
"It's been tough, not going to lie. Anytime your kid gets hurt, as a parent, you feel it. But God isn't making any excuses. God has a plan."