Louisville's song finishes in glory

Originally Published: April 9, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- The song wasn't good enough, not this time.

The spliced moments of highlight dunks and emotional victories set to the soppy strains of Luther Vandross seemed almost trite in comparison to what was unfolding in real time Monday night at the Georgia Dome.

There, behind the Louisville bench, sat the Hancock family: father Bill, mother Van, brothers Will, Matt, Robert and Stephen, plus sister Melissa. Their son and brother Luke had just been named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, the first bench player in the history of the NCAA tournament to get the award.

Bill is gravely ill but he willed himself to attend the Final Four despite a body that fought him every step of the way. Luke's first stop after Louisville topped Michigan 82-76 for its first national championship since 1986 was his father's embrace.

Not far from Luke and Bill was Peyton Siva, practically jumping over the media table to embrace his family. His dad, Peyton Sr., dressed in an airbrushed Kevin Ware tank top, was there celebrating and fist pumping.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Dana O'Neil/ESPN.comRick Pitino and his family soaked in the moment after Louisville won its first national title in 27 years.

Less than 10 years ago and lost in a haze of drugs, he wanted to kill himself, pulled back from the brink by his 13-year-old namesake.

In the middle of the court on the makeshift trophy-presentation stage gathered the extended Pitino family -- kids, in-laws, grandchildren, the whole gang. Front and center sat Rick Pitino, now a newly minted Hall of Famer, a Kentucky Derby horse owner and the first man to lead two schools to a national title. Only three years ago, he was a punch line mired in an embarrassing scandal. On Monday night, his wife, Joanne, sat alongside him, their legs dangling over the edge like little kids while everyone made Louisville L's with their fingers.

On Wednesday, the same day Pitino got the call from the Hall, the couple celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary, 37 years of loss and triumph, strength and struggle.

And at one end of the court, there was Kevin Ware on his crutches, the net lowered to accommodate him and his crutches, making the final snip on the only nets Louisville has cut all season.

There are shining moments that have the shelf life of a video, and there are life moments that never die, shared by a group of players thrown together to form a team but that, if they're lucky, become something more.

"These are my brothers," Peyton Siva said. "My brothers."

College basketball's latest national champion is a collection of incredulous moments. One emotional journey is more improbable than the next, all steered by a man whose life journey is perhaps more halved by pain and joy than that of any other coach in the game.

Individually, they don't look like much. Pitino's last NCAA champion, Kentucky in 1996, was an NBA roster in the making. These Cardinals are looked over, passed over or retread.

Collectively, though, they have become something extraordinary.

Between Feb. 10 and April 8, Louisville did not lose a single game, stringing together 16 wins in a row that gobbled up a share of the Big East regular-season title, the Big East tournament title, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, a Midwest Regional crown and now, the ultimate jewel, an NCAA title.

That was the exact gauntlet Pitino threw down at the Cardinals after they lost in five overtimes to Notre Dame, a challenge he hoped they would take up but didn't honestly know whether they could realize.

He asked them not to cut down any nets until the final one, knowing there was a chance this group could go home without souvenirs.

"I wanted them to get the confidence of not cutting them down," he said. "To understand what we were trying to do."

To realize that checklist would be extraordinary under any terms, the basketball challenges tough enough on their own. To tick through Pitino's to-do list under the circumstances the Cardinals have been through, with way more real life than college kids should have to deal with creeping in, is flabbergasting.

[+] EnlargeLuke Hancock
AP Photo/David J. PhillipLuke Hancock provided the spark that fueled Louisville's first-half comeback against Michigan.

Quietly, and privately, for this entire season, Hancock has been dealing with his father's illness. The family prefers to keep the details quiet but one look at Bill Hancock and you know he is not well. His voice was barely a whisper, and after a while, he ceded postgame interviews to his wife, Van, offering her a little wink while she met the media.

Bill hasn't been able to make many of Luke's games, but once Louisville made it to Atlanta, he was bound and determined to get there.

"It means so much," said Luke's mother, Van. "The whole family is here under one roof. It's a big roof, but we're all here together."

Not only did Bill Hancock make it, he watched his son carry his team to the title. On Saturday, Luke scored 20 points against Wichita State, and he scored 22 more in the title game, including a flurry of 14 in a row at the end of the first half that took Louisville's deficit from 12 to one at the break.

"My dad always tells me to pull the trigger," Luke said. "So I pulled the trigger."

Siva did the same in the second half. If there is an embodiment of this team, it is the slight point guard who is wise beyond his years, forced to grow up to help save his dad.

He is one of Pitino's favorites, the sort of player smart coaches know doesn't come around very often. Well spoken, respectful and talented, he started his championship morning receiving the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, honoring a player shorter than 6-foot-1 for his on- and off-court accomplishments.

Siva was 1-of-9 in the semifinal game against Wichita State and just 1-of-4 in the first half against Michigan, for only four points.

He ended up with 18, along with five assists and four steals, in the final game of his career.

"There's so much emotion," Siva said. "We are a family. It's not just talk. We are a family."

And it's a family with a perfect patriarch.

Pitino has had a week for the ages -- "He should go play the lottery," Luke Hancock said, "not that he needs the money" -- but a lifetime of trials. He lost an infant son, lost his best friend and lost his reputation, surviving it all to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame on Monday morning.

Like Siva, that's where he started his championship day -- at the 11 a.m. news conference to announce the latest class.

Twelve hours later, he added a line to that Hall résumé.

"I can't wrap my head around it. I really can't," his wife said.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen my dad happier," said his son, Richard, who added to his father's pride when he was named coach at Minnesota earlier in the week.

After hugging his staff and promising over the microphone to get a tattoo -- a midseason vow he made to his team that it isn't about to forget now -- Pitino called his family over for a family portrait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ware
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallKevin Ware had his opportunity to cut down the nets after Louisville's win over Michigan.

On the stage with him were two of his sisters-in-law. Stephanie is the widow of Billy, Joanne's brother and Pitino's best friend, who was killed on 9/11. And Mary lost not only Billy, her brother, but also her husband, Don, in a freak accident the same year. Earlier in the day, Pitino gave the Hall of Fame jersey he'd just received to Mary, saying she was the real Hall of Famer.

"We're a family that's had a lot of difficult times," Pitino said. "That being said, no one celebrates like the Pitinos and the Minardis."

Before the celebration could begin, though, there was one more piece of business to take care of.

The final moment, if you will.

The story of this tournament will remain the player who couldn't finish it. Ware's gruesome injury, his teammates' emotional reactions and his own selfless plea for them to soldier on captured the country, and not just the citizens who care about basketball.

As promised, he made it to Atlanta and was sitting on the bench for his team's last two games.

Ware took the final snip of the first net and then carefully crutched his way through the confetti spilled on the floor, a team official on either side to make sure he wouldn't slip, to the other end and the other net. He got just outside the 3-point line as "One Shining Moment" began on the screen.

With the net splayed around his neck, Ware leaned on his crutches as his best friend, Chane Behanan, wrapped an arm around his neck.

When the video got to the hardest moments for Ware to watch, the ones right after his injury against Duke, he smirked while the jovial Behanan thundered: "No. 5 isn't fooling. That's my brother over here."

"This is one of the greatest feelings I've ever had," Ware said. "Probably the best feeling."

And certainly the best moment, reality better than anything videographers could conjure up.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball