- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 3, 2013

LOUISVILLE, KY. (AP) - Kevin Ware is pretty certain how his next few months will play out.

“After we win the national championship,” the injured Louisville guard said with a smile on his face, “I’m just looking forward to rehab.”

Ware is already set for his next step, though he is gingerly walking around on crutches and with his surgically repaired broken leg in a cast up to his right knee: He is heading to the Final Four.

Ware was cleared Wednesday by doctors to accompany the Cardinals on their hour-long flight to Atlanta and he did just that. The last player to enter the team’s hotel in Georgia, he was greeted with cheers when he came through the door in a wheelchair. He waved to fans as he entered an elevator.

“It’s like he’s never left,” teammate Peyton Siva said. “Words can’t explain our feelings to have him back with us.”

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.

“To see him up again _ just to see a picture of him up again is awesome,” Siva said. “Now he’s up walking with a broken leg, crutching around.”

Ware said the overwhelming support he has received has helped him maintain his spirits and strengthened his confidence of a full recovery. He hopes by next season to be helping the Cardinals defend the national championship he believes they’ll win this weekend.

The normally reserved 20-year-old calmly recalled how he felt when he suffered the devastating injury, saying he doesn’t think Louisville would be in the Final Four if he had lost his composure.

Ware credits teammate Luke Hancock for calming him down.

“He got me to that point where I really had to put the pain on hold,” said Ware, with his leg in a cast propped up on a couch. “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.”

But it wasn’t easy for the Cardinals, many of whom cried after seeing Ware’s gruesome injury _ his bone protruding six inches through his skin.

Even Louisville coach Rick Pitino was emotional, wiping tears from his eyes and later saying that the sight of his player’s injury almost made him vomit.

But Pitino said everyone’s emotions have settled down knowing that it appears Ware will be OK.

“I think we’re all fine now,” Pitino said. “Just having Kevin around, we can exhale.”

The coach said having Ware in Atlanta might provide the Cardinals with a little “extra emotion,” but in his experience “the team that executes the best will win.”

Pitino and his son, Richard, spent Monday at the hospital with Ware, who was pictured holding the championship trophy in his bed. Though Ware had maintained his composure talking with AP, he became very emotional during an earlier interview with ESPN when talking about waking up and seeing the trophy.

The coach downplayed staying with him at the hospital after his injury.

“There’s not a coach in America that wouldn’t be there,” he said.

And while Pitino said everyone can exhale now, the Cardinals had to take a deep breath when Ware went down on Sunday. They eventually regrouped and took the lead at halftime against Duke en route to an 85-63 victory over the Blue Devils in Indianapolis.

Through it all, Ware said he had to remain strong. He was placed on a stretcher and wheeled out of Lucas Oil Stadium to cheers of `Kevin Ware, Kevin Ware,’ before heading to Methodist Hospital.

Ware underwent a two-hour operation to repair compound fractures of the tibia that left the leg 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. 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.”

Ware said he has heard from several of his NBA 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.

For the soft-spoken Ware, the support and media attention has meant more interviews than he ever imagined.

“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.”

But as Ware cherishes the flood of warm wishes, he’s also dealing with the irony of the injury’s occurrence in a game against Duke.

He leaped high near the right sideline to defend a 3-point attempt, similar to a defensive play he made without incident in Louisville’s game in November against Duke in the Bahamas. This time he landed awkwardly, with the leg going in two different directions.

“That was frustrating because it happened the same exact way, me making the play,” Ware said. “I was thinking then about just blocking the shot and that was what I was thinking this time. This was just different.”

Ware also lamented the timing of his injury, a recollection that made him pause for a moment. A key part of Louisville’s guard rotation who often substituted for starters Siva and Russ Smith, Ware had overcome a one-game suspension in January and was coming off a career-best, 11-point effort in Friday’s tournament win over Oregon.

Ware is also finding out how difficult it is getting around with one healthy leg.

Fortunately for him, his girlfriend, Louisville sophomore Brittany Kelly, has been there to help since he was injured. Ware’s teammate and roommate, forward Chane Behanan, will lend a hand as well.

“He’s handling it better than I would’ve expected,” Kelly said. “When they took the towel off his leg, he asked if he’d be able to play next week before they told him no.”

Ware’s mother, Lisa Junior, also plans to move from Georgia to aid her son’s healing process. Ware said his leg will need eight to 12 weeks to heal before he begins rehabilitation in hopes of returning by the start of practice in October.

How he’ll celebrate if the Cardinals fulfill their mission is unclear. Ware joked at climbing the ladder to cut down the nets but will likely settle for just being part of the action.

“Whatever I see on the court,” he said, “I will tell them about it.”

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