ATLANTA (AP) — Just seeing a picture of Kevin Ware up and moving around again inspired the Louisville Cardinals.
Imagine the boost they're going to get having Ware alongside them.
Ware was greeted with loud cheers when he arrived at Louisville's hotel Wednesday night, hours after doctors cleared the sophomore to accompany the Cardinals to the Final Four. Ware flew with the team on its hour-long flight from Louisville, his broken right leg propped up on a second seat. He was in a wheelchair as he entered the hotel, his mother behind him, and smiled and waved as he disappeared into an elevator.
"It's like he never left," Peyton Siva said, breaking into a smile. "Words can't explain our feelings to have him back with us. It just shows what a strong character he is."
Ware broke his lower right leg in gruesome fashion during Sunday's Midwest Regional final, the bone snapping as he landed after trying to block a shot. The Cardinals were shell-shocked by the injury — Ware's bone protruded six inches through the skin — and it was only the encouraging words of Ware himself that helped the team focus on the game.
Louisville defeated Duke 85-63 to earn a second straight trip to the national semifinals.
Ware said he doesn't think Louisville would be in the Final Four if he had lost his composure, and credited Luke Hancock for calming him down. Hancock rubbed Ware's chest while doctors worked on him on the sidelines.
"He got me to that point where I really had to put the pain on hold," Ware said. "Once he said his prayer, I was kind of thinking the whole time, 'You can either be a crybaby about it or you're going to get your team back and get them in the right mindset.'
"Luke said his words, and I just kept repeating, 'Y'all gotta go win this game.' I'm fine. ... It really helped the team."
During a two-hour surgery later that night, doctors repaired the compound fractures that had led Ware's tibia at an odd angle. He awoke the next morning to discover he had become an overnight sensation, and the afterglow hasn't waned.
His condition and progress have been featured every day on the major networks, the Internet and especially social media. Ware said he's heard from several of his idols, including Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Charles Barkley. The Louisville guard said he has even heard from first lady Michelle Obama and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"I had no idea I would get this kind of attention," he said. "I'm one of those guys who just likes to play basketball. But the injury opened up a lot of peoples' eyes and I really appreciate all the support. It really means a lot."
On Wednesday, the Cardinals' practice facility was surrounded by a phalanx of satellite trucks, and the interview requests helped Ware get an early jump on his rehab as he shuttled back and forth between makeshift sets.
"It's going to take a long time to get where I want to be," Ware said.
Not that he's dreading the hard work ahead.
"I think God puts things in your life and you have to go through certain obstacles," he said. "I just feel like these are obstacles that are going to make me grow up for the better. It's going to open my eyes to a lot of things I probably haven't seen before."
In the meantime, however, Ware — and the Cardinals — have a title to win. In the city where Ware played high school ball, no less, after moving from New York City.
Ware plans to be a full participant in preparations for Saturday's game against Wichita State, including sitting on the bench. And the Cardinals will wear new warm-up gear to honor the sophomore, with Ware's No. 5 replacing the "S'' in the "Rise to the Occasion" T-shirts they've been wearing.
"He's like a brother to all of us, and we're just happy he's here," said Chane Behanan, Ware's closest friend on the Louisville team. "We're going to try and celebrate and bring the trophy home."
AP Sports Writer Gary Graves contributed to this report from Louisville, Ky.