Trophy a good get-well card
The photograph of Kevin Ware in a hospital bed with the NCAA regional championship trophy propped up alongside like a giant get-well card makes it all easier to take.
But hours earlier, in those first few heartbeats after his leg snapped grotesquely in a corner of the frame as CBS televised Sunday's Midwest regional final between his Louisville team and Duke, no one dared look. Even CBS couldn't.
Its cameras lingered first on Duke's Tyler Thornton, who had just made the 3-point shot on the same play – freezing momentarily, covering his eyes with his hand, and then looking back to be sure what he had seen only from the edge of his peripheral vision actually happened.
Then Thornton grimaced, covered his heart with both hands, and as the camera shot widened to take in the expressions of shock and anguish among Ware's teammates on the Louisville bench and in the stands, there was no longer any doubt.
"I got sick to my stomach, and I'm kind of the resident authority on broken legs," said former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, who suffered a similar compound fracture in a Monday Night Football game in 1985. "A lot came rushing back. I still remember what everything looked like when it happened, still feel the moisture on my back lying on the grass, the large second hand on the scoreboard sweeping. Everything."
Theismann sent Ware a text almost immediately and followed up in a brief phone conversation Monday.
"I just offered any help I could, maybe with the psychological and emotional aspects of the rehab down the road. It's not something you'd put on a resume, but I believe being able to talk to somebody who's been through that might help."
The injury to Ware's right leg caused the tibia to poke out from his shin – like Theismann's. As curiosity and dread competed for attention in the minds of viewers, CBS gave its producers roughly 40 seconds to watch the replays, decide whether to show the play again, and if so, in how much detail.
They settled on one replay from the other end of the court, a second from the original angle, and no more. Sean McManus, the head of CBS Sports, said, "We did not try to highlight it. I think we did the right thing."
Agreed. But that didn't stop the photos, videos and exchanges on social media from exploding instantaneously.
A day later, after Louisville coach Rick Pitino visited the recuperating Ware and reported that he left the trophy behind with this instruction – "'Just make sure you don't lose it'" – the story still simmers.
The initial reaction, explained Syracuse professor of popular culture Robert Thompson, is simply a sign of the times. On the other hand, the continuing interest in the story shows how little human nature has changed.
"Neither of those mean we're terrible people. I think it speaks more to this need we feel now to bear witness. Look at the technology that's in place. Couple it with the image of a human body doing something that seems so alien in that instant – something that's both disturbing AND striking – and there's this almost creepy desire to watch it over and over again," he said.
"And you know, we've seen car crashes in NASCAR races and terrible collisions in the NFL, and in a sense, that's become part of the narrative. That's not the case with basketball, which is a big part of what made it so jarring," Thompson added. "Just look at his teammates' reaction in the moment after."
Pitino reported the surgery was successful and that, barring an infection, Ware will be back in Louisville in time for the charter flight to the Final Four in Atlanta, which happens to be Ware's hometown.
"We've become an 'I-want-to-know-it-now' culture," Theismann said. "But for all the attention at the moment, it's his emotions that Kevin will have to deal with at some point, and mostly on his own. That's where his teammates will come in. There will be plenty people offering help, but if you've ever competed at any level, you know you wind up playing and trying to win for somebody.
"His teammates showed that by the way they finished the Duke game. It's the guys you laugh and sweat and bleed and cry alongside that will give him the encouragement to fight back. Just before I got off the phone, I told him, 'A year from now, you'll be the comeback player of the year,' and he said, 'I'm going to work for it.' I told him I'd be watching."
He won't be the only one.