- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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She will start out early on Friday morning, leaving her Atlanta home with her husband, two daughters and two nieces, and the car pointed toward Louisville, Ky.
Once there, she will do what parents always do when they reunite with their college-aged kids -- hit Wal-Mart for supplies, buy dinner, hand over a little spending money.
On Saturday morning, there will be a stop at Wild Eggs, the family's go-to breakfast joint.
And then on Saturday afternoon, one day before her birthday, Lisa Junior will head to the Yum! Center, where she'll receive her gift:
For the first time since March 23, she will see her son, Kevin Ware, play college basketball.
"I don't want to cry," Lisa Junior said.
That's probably a tall order, but at least these will be happy tears. The sad ones have been banished for good, sent packing alongside the crutches, X-rays and MRIs.
Louisville will open its regular season against Charleston at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
And Kevin Ware will play.
That simple act seemed simply impossible a mere seven months ago, when Ware suffered a catastrophic fracture of his leg in the Elite Eight game against Duke.
Wheeled off the court at Lucas Oil Stadium while his teammates crumbled to the floor in front of him, Ware had surgery later that same night before returning to Louisville for what most figured would be a long road back.
"Me personally, I thought he wouldn't play before the second semester," said Ware's stepfather, Wesley Junior. "This is just wow."
Indeed, wow is now.
Ware's timetable has incrementally moved up from that initial second-semester prediction to a maybe in uniform for the season opener to what seems a guarantee of playing time against Charleston.
Guarantee because, technically, Ware already has played. He made a surprise 10-minute appearance in the Cardinals' final exhibition game Wednesday night against Pikesville, entering the game with 13:49 left to play, when Rick Pitino called to him on the bench, much to the delight of the 19,000-plus crowd and much to his own amazement.
"Coach P never told me I was going to play," Ware said. "I had no idea. Then it was just, 'Take your shirt off and get in the game.' I was just glad I had Biofreeze [a topical ointment] so my leg felt warm."
Back in Atlanta, his parents had no idea, either. Wesley was already snoozing on the sofa and Lisa hadn't even been following the game. And then Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Adam Himmelsbach sent her a text.
"He said, 'I just wanted to know how you felt about Kevin getting in the game,' and I was like, 'What is he talking about?'" Lisa Junior said. "I pulled the game up on my iPad and once it pops on, there's Kevin taking a 3-pointer. And it went in. And I'm yelling, 'Wesley, wake up! Wake up!'"
If it weren't for the calamity that caused it all, Ware's story would play out like some sort of Hollywood fairy tale:
Player gets injured horrifically. Player calls distraught teammates over to calm them down, imploring them to win the game. Team wins. Days after surgery, player is on the bench to watch team win national championship.
Player rehabs, beats original timetable and appears in first game back, when team hangs national championship banner in the rafters.
"It feels like it all happened so long ago," Ware said. "I've been through so much and done so much since then."
As has his family.
Lisa and Wesley Junior weren't in Indianapolis in March. They'd gone to the first weekend games in Lexington, Ky., but Ware told them to save their money and skip Indianapolis. He'd see them in Atlanta, site of the Final Four, where Ware was certain the Cards were headed.
So they were sitting at home, wearing their Louisville gear and watching the game on television, when Ware went down.
They didn't grasp the severity of the injury at first, not until they saw the replay.
"I thought maybe it was an ankle sprain," Wesley Junior told ESPN.com last April, the day after Ware's surgery. "Then we saw his teammates on the ground and we were like, 'What happened? What happened?' Then they showed the replay. Lisa lost it for a little bit."
But like her son, who showed extraordinary grace and strength in the immediate minutes after the injury, Lisa Junior didn't waste too much time on pity and fret. She got herself to Indianapolis. Since then she, along with her husband, has been a source of comfort for Ware.
On each step of his long journey, from surgery to the day he giddily texted a copy of his X-ray showing a completely healed bone, they've been there.
And now Lisa and Wesley Junior will be there when Ware takes the last step, when he plays in an official game, 223 days after the injury.
"I can't wait," Ware said. "I know it will be emotional, especially for my mom."
At least Ware doesn't have to worry about shopping for last-minute birthday gifts for his mother.
What more could he offer?
"A couple of points," Wesley Junior quipped.
"No, no, no," Lisa Junior laughed. "Seeing him on the court, smiling and comfortable and confident, that's my birthday gift right there."
6dAndy Katz and David Purdum
6dESPN The Magazine