INDIANAPOLIS - Louisville guard Kevin Ware was up and walking on crutches Monday morning, and coach Rick Pitino was all smiles as he left Methodist Hospital, a much better Monday than some had feared.
Pitino said Ware's surgery went well, that he's "in good spirits" and "not in any pain." Medical staff is working to ensure that no infection sets in.
IMAGES: UL resilient after Ware injury
Pitino said Ware could return to Louisville on Tuesday and will travel with the team to Atlanta later this week.
Ware suffered a horrifying fracture in the first half of Sunday's Midwest Regional final when he landed awkwardly after trying to contest a 3-point shot, breaking his leg in two places. He was taken off the court on a stretcher to Methodist Hospital as his stunned teammates openly wept.
Despite the victory, all thoughts were with Ware.
"I feel much better now. I had a tough night, but I feel great now knowing that he's smiling, that he's OK," Pitino said Monday morning. "He's got the Midwest trophy right next to his bed, taking pictures with it."
Pitino planned to return to Louisville on Monday afternoon. He was upbeat about Ware's eventual return to the court.
"It's a very serious injury, but as long as there's no infection, you heal. It just takes time," Pitino said. "We all feel good now. For the last 16 hours, we felt awful."
Pitino praised the care Ware got at Methodist Hospital.
"The doctors here have been tremendous. The hospital has been tremendous. They operated right away on him. He's not in any pain," Pitino said. "We're real pleased with that."
Pitino has been doing his share for Ware, too.
"I'm going to get him something to eat and then I'll feed him lunch and then I'll head back," he said Monday afternoon.
School officials said doctors reset the bone and inserted a rod into the tibia during a two-hour procedure.
Ware has played a key role in the Cardinals' second straight Final Four run, scoring 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting in 25 minutes in the regional semifinal win over Oregon, and on Sunday he was the primary motivator. Before leaving the court, he called his teammates over to prod them to win the game and not worry about him, a message he continued to express at halftime. And he was eager to return to Atlanta, where he played high school basketball.
For television viewers, it was a gruesome sight that prompted many to express their sentiments on social media sites. CBS even stopped showing the replay, which was not seen inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
For Louisville players and coaches, it was far worse. Guard Russ Smith said he didn't see the play but he heard the bone snap. And forward Chane Behanan, Ware's closest friend, said the sight was almost unimaginable.
Pitino, one of college basketball's top winners, thought he had seen just about everything in the sport until Ware's injury.
"I went over and I was going to help him up and then all of a sudden, I saw what it was and I almost literally threw up," Pitino said Sunday.
Athletic trainer Ralph Reiff, coordinator of services for the NCAA Midwest Regional Finals, said at first he thought the crowd had gone silent because two players had collided until he saw Ware's injury.
"In basketball, it was the most visually severe that I had ever seen," Reiff said.
Dr. Don Shelbourne, of the Shelbourne Knee Center, has treated athletes at Purdue and Indianapolis Colts players, but he said he's only seen a handful of fractures similar to Ware's.
"Tibia fractures in athletics are pretty unusual, and that's why I think everybody was impressed with how dramatically bad that looked last night," Shelbourne said.
Ware's teammates were overcome with emotion.
Luke Hancock patted Ware on the chest after Ware rolled himself to the sideline and right in front of the Louisville bench. Behanan and several other players sat on the floor as Ware was treated and some, including Behanan, cried.
Duke guard Tyler Thornton covered his eyes when he realized what had happened, and Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski even told Pitino that he would agree to let the teams warm up again if they wanted.
They didn't, though Pitino did summon Ware's teammates so he could speak to them. His message was simple: Win the game.
"I said, 'We're going to dig in. We're going to play this game to the end. We're going to play this game to get him back home,'" Pitino said, explaining his halftime speech. "We'll get him back home, nurse him to good health and we're going to get him to Atlanta."
Louisville trainer Fred Hina told Pitino it was the same injury that derailed the Heisman Trophy hopes of running back Michael Bush, who also played at Louisville. Bush recovered from the injury and has had a productive NFL career with Oakland and Chicago.
As it turned out, he was watching.
"I just cried," he wrote on Twitter. "I feel so bad. Flashback of myself. Anyone if he needs anything please let me know."
The reaction was the same everywhere.
Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear fell to the floor, crying, and Behanan looked as if he was going
to be sick on the court, kneeling on his hands and feet. Peyton Siva sat a few feet away, a hand covering his mouth.
Someone finally pulled Behanan to his feet, but he doubled over and needed a few seconds to gather himself.
Condolences poured in on social media, too. Former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who famously sustained a broken leg on Monday Night Football in a game against the New York Giants, tweeted that "Watching Duke/ Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware."
Two doctors speculated Ware might have had stress fractures that predisposed him to such a break.
Dr. Reed Estes, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and team physician for the UAB football team, said basketball players are prone to stress fractures in the tibia, the larger of the two leg bones, and that can weaken them.
"If these are not detected they can result in a full fracture, particularly if the landing mechanics are just right" after a jump, Estes said. Surgery to stabilize the bones is usually successful, and Ware should be fine to play next season, he said.
Dr. Frederick Azar, head of the Campbell Clinic in Memphis, Tenn., and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, said Ware "jumped pretty far horizontally and vertically, and he landed with a twist," which puts so much torsion and stress on the bones they could have just snapped. He agreed with Estes' assessment that a stress fracture could have made Ware more prone to such an injury.
Dr. Walter Virkus, director of orthopedic trauma at IU Health, said his staff sees this kind of injury on a weekly basis, but it's uncommon in high-level athletes.
"When we do see these, it's typically you know, some sort of perfect storm of coming down on the leg funny, a little awkwardly where the leg gets twisted a little bit," he said.
Louisville, the top overall seed in the tourney, missed four of its next five shots but regained its composure to take a 35-32 halftime lead and went on to an 85-63 victory.
"We won this for him," Pitino said. "We were all choked up with emotion for him. We'll get him back to normal. We've got great doctors, great trainers. We talked about it every timeout, 'Get Kevin home.'"
Behanan switched into Ware's No. 5 jersey near the end of the game.
Afterward, he kept it on and the Cardinal players led the heavily partisan Louisville crowd in chants of "Kev-in, Kev-in."
"We had to do this for Kevin, that's our whole thing," Siva said. "Coach told us that we needed to get him back home, and I think it would have been a tougher loss for us if we would have gone out there and lost."