ATLANTA (AP) — Kevin Ware shows no queasiness toward that nasty scar running down the front of his right leg. He even rubs it from time to time — a good luck charm, one might say.
He’s definitely not worried about another gruesome injury.
As the doctor told him, “I would have to get in a bad car crash or something like that to get my leg broken again,” Ware said. “Everybody in the world is more concerned about it than me.”
Of course, he did bend over to tap the court with his knuckles while speaking so confidently.
Knock on wood, you know.
The last time Ware played in the NCAA Tournament, he left the court on a stretcher, his right leg snapped so grotesquely that some of his Louisville teammates were in tears.
Now, he returns to the tournament with a different team and looking to leave a much different impression.
Ware plays at Georgia State — a school in downtown Atlanta, not far from where he played his high school ball — and he’s a big reason the Panthers made the NCAAs for only the third time in school history.
In the low-scoring championship game of the Sun Belt Conference tournament, the junior guard scored 18 points — nearly half of his team’s total.
Hollywood couldn’t have drawn it up any better heading into the NCAA Tournament.
“There will be no greater story in my mind than Kevin Ware,” Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said, looking ahead to Thursday’s game against third-seeded Baylor in Jacksonville, Florida. “Mentally, what he had to go through to overcome this, that’s something none of us can even dream about.”
Two years ago, Ware was a key player off the bench for a talented Louisville team that many were picking to win it all. In the regional final against Duke, he soared out toward the 3-point line looking to contest a Blue Devils’ shot. When he landed, the upper part of his right leg went one way, the bottom part went another.
The bone snapped cleanly in two, protruding through his skin. While some cried, others looked as though they might faint. If they had called the game off right there, no one would’ve complained.
But, before Ware was taken off the court, he urged his teammates to finish what they had started. The Cardinals won the game and advanced to the Final Four — in Atlanta, no less. Ware was able to watch both the semifinal and final from a seat at the far end of the bench, while many red-clad fans waved giant posters of his face and tweeted out messages with the hashtag, “WinForWare.”
Win, Louisville did.
Ware even got to help cut down the net.
By the next season, he was recovered enough to return to the court. But he wasn’t the same player, and he found it burdensome to be asked about his injury over and over again. Finally, after just nine games, he took a redshirt year and decided to transfer. Georgia State was a logical destination, a place where he could be close to his family and friends but without all the unwanted attention.
“I just had to get away from being Kevin Ware, the guy who broke his leg on national TV,” Ware said. “I just wanted to have a fresh start. I felt like Georgia State was up and rising.”
Indeed, the Panthers romped through the Sun Belt a year ago, losing only one conference game during the regular season, only to be denied a spot in the NCAAs when they lost in overtime of an excruciating conference final.
This season, Georgia State wasn’t nearly as dominating, but it captured the conference title on the final day and again reached the championship game of the Sun Belt tournament. Facing state rival Georgia Southern, the Panthers struggled to do much of anything offensively, with star player R.J. Hunter (the coach’s son) missing shot after shot while the other main scoring threat, former Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow, barely played at all because of a hamstring injury.
Enter Ware, who scored enough points for Georgia State to escape with a 38-36 victory.
“If I ever questioned his mental toughness, he sure answered me,” R.J. Hunter said. “It was just amazing, man. That kid has been through a lot.”
Back in Louisville, coach Rick Pitino was watching the game on television. He texted Ware’s mother, while her son was diving all over the floor, telling her how proud he was of his effort.
“It was great to see him come back, not only perform like that but go to the tournament,” Pitino said. “I know he’ll have a lot of great experiences. It’s great that he’s back healthy and playing again.”
With Harrow still hurting, his status for Thursday’s game up in the air, Ware will likely need another huge performance for the 14th-seeded Panthers to pull off the upset.
No matter what happens, he’s moved on from that horrible day two years ago.
“This closes the book for him,” Ron Hunter said. “He can go back to being Kevin Ware, the basketball player.”
AP freelance writer Josh Abner in Louisville, Kentucky contributed to this report.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.