Leading Through Tragedy, Louisville's Hancock Kept Team Together

Louisville player Luke Hancock isn't the most talented on the team, but his leadership played a key role keeping everyone focused after a devastating injury to teammate Kevin Ware. The Louisville Cardinals play the Michigan Wolverines in Monday night's NCAA men's college basketball finals.

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After weeks of March Madness, the men's college basketball championship is under way, Louisville versus Michigan. Louisville guard Kevin Ware has been in the spotlight after his gruesome leg injury in the regional final. Tonight, he is cheering from the sidelines. NPR's Mike Pesca reports now on another force inspiring the Louisville team.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: There's a player on Louisville who was so badly hurt that a member of the team's medical staff described his injury as one of the worst he'd ever seen. This is a player who inspires his teammates, a player who Louisville coach Rick Pitino describes this way.

RICK PITINO: This young man is the toughest kid I've ever coached times 10.

PESCA: The player is not Kevin ware, but he was right there when Kevin Ware went down, with his broken leg, kneeling over Ware, praying over Ware, trying to do whatever he could do to comfort Ware. When Luke Hancock, who was actually Ware's main rival for playing minutes, was later asked why he acted as he did in that moment, Hancock professed to not being able to explain, while providing that explanation.

LUKE HANCOCK: We're brothers for life, and, you know, I have that guy's back in any situation. I know he has mine. And, you know, I don't really know why I went out there, just didn't want him to be alone out there, I guess. I don't know.

PESCA: To say that Hancock's love, commitment and toughness is unique among the Cardinals would underplay those virtues in his teammates. They're all tough. They've all sacrificed. But Hancock's struggle is perhaps more tangible. It can be noticed during postgame interviews when he straps an icepack around his shooting shoulder. Hancock separated his shoulder about a year ago. Fred Hina, who worked in professional baseball for 11 years, was horrified by the injury as Rick Pitino recounts.

PITINO: I've never seen so much damage in my life. The doctor said it was the worst shoulder he's ever operated on. And I said to Fred: Is he going to play this year? And he said: No one but Luke will play.

PESCA: Hancock admits to being in pain every day and says that just to be able to lift his arm high enough to shoot can take a half hour.

HANCOCK: You know, some days, you really can't get it loose. Some days, you got to start with a heat pad. I'll throw a lot of baseball passes. Usually throughout practice, I'll start to feel better. You know, I shoot a lot of jump shots, and then there's a point where it'll just start to feel a little better.

PESCA: Hancock played his first two years at George Mason. He had a big moment in the NCAA tournament. Down a point with 20 seconds left after bringing the ball up court, he executed a jab step that caught his Villanova defender leaning the wrong way. Hancock stepped behind the three-point line and put the Patriots ahead for good. True TV had the call.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PESCA: But Hancock left George Mason after his head coach took another job. He had to sit out a year as per NCAA regulations. This season, he was so committed to his new team that he upbraided his new teammates for lack of dedication to working out. The teammates, veterans of last season's Final Four run mind you, weren't offended. They were inspired. Hancock was named captain before he had ever played a game. And on Saturday, Hancock, who had been averaging 7.7 points per game, poured in 20 with shots like this as described by CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hancock with a three.

PESCA: Hancock's father, Bill, who has a condition the family is reluctant to disclose beyond saying that he's seriously ill, saw the shot live and has a ticket for the game tonight if he's feeling up to it. The Hancock family describes Bill Hancock as wanting to be there to watch his son, the player who has always been there when it counts the most. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Atlanta.

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