Thoughts on Kevin Ware, and Why Sports Matter to Us

Teammate Russ Smith reacts to Kevin Ware’s injury
Image via

“Just win the game.”

Considering how much of American life revolves around playing, watching, contemplating, studying, and discussing sports, it sometimes seems that it would require a remarkable feat of self-delusion to believe that it’s really worth so much time and effort. After all, don’t sports at the highest levels ultimately amount to little more than spectacle? Athletic exhibitions that distract our energies from those things that really count in life? Such skepticism is justified.

“I’m ok. Just win the game”

Yet, there are those ephemeral moments in sporting life that enlighten us about our nature. Sometimes there are instants that transcend the contest on the court, the bounce of the ball, the tick of the clock. Sometimes sports reveal our humanity.

“Just go win the game”

Kevin Ware’s body failed him spectacularly. Imagine jumping 18 inches and falling 30 feet. Doctors later said that Ware’s injury, a compound fracture in his lower leg, typically occurs only in high-speed collisions, like a car crash. He was bloody, mangled. Just skin held him together. In another place, another time, the 20-year-old would have lost his foot.

But in the midst of terror and trauma, something truly beautiful happened. Kevin Ware, who in seconds had lost so much, somehow managed to give a little more. 

“Remember the bone is six inches out of his leg, and all he’s yelling is ‘Win the game, win the game,'” remarked coach Rick Pitino. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” (Huffington Post)

I don’t know how he did it,” added star guard Peyton Siva. “I don’t know how he had the strength to do it. … Everybody on the team just wanted to step up for him.”

“It was really hard for me to pull myself together,” said Russ Smith. “I was completely devastated.”

But he did pull himself together. Smith, Siva, and forward Gorgui Dieng led a 17-2 second half run, blowing by the Blue Devils en route to a final score of 85-63.

Ultimately, the fact that the University of Louisville team won the game is tertiary to the meaning of it all. Win or lose, on that night the final score was not important. Ware’s plea was. Calling upon his team to rally, to recover, to find strength at that moment represents the essence of what it is to be human. He gave of himself when he had almost nothing left to give. Ware couldn’t have sacrificed anything more physically at that moment, but he denied himself the sorrow, commiseration, and pity he had every right to accept – for the sake of those he calls his teammates, his friends, his brothers. Whether he knew it consciously or unconsciously, Ware’s calming strength in that moment, in the face of gravest adversity, gave the rest of the team a better chance to do what they set out to do.

In our country, we are extremely fortunate that we infrequently deal with famine, plague, mass poverty, and fatal climates. We are blessed that such pressures occur most often elsewhere. But those terrors have been central to human life from the beginning of time until very recently. Just because we’ve made our world easier does not mean that we’re much different here or somewhere else, in this time or in our past. Tragedy and elation have always followed us, and will follow us until humans are extinct.

In a less-mechanized world, tragedy and triumph might entirely revolve around finding enough food to get through the day, or enough water to quench your thirst. In such a world, the friends you make and the families you build are truly the best defenses against death. Humans are social creatures. People fundamentally need each other. Our emotional bonds are our species’ vital response to what would otherwise be a harsh and short life. Sometimes – remarkably, astoundingly, miraculously –  these bonds cause us to give more than anybody, even ourselves, thought we could.

But in our relatively easy American lives, the pressures and the pains that produce this sort of greatness are so often muted by our technology and our organization and our laws. That’s a good thing. Still we retain a fundamental need to experience, or at the very least witness, what it’s like to be on the brink.

Our sports, and our coverage of them, provides an environment through which we have the opportunity to experience the rawest of emotions, in triumph and tragedy, when the truly scary things in life are on the back burner. In a country where so much of our supposed ‘reality’ entertainment is built on contrived drama and fabricated emotion, sports remain a realm in which authentic personal interaction will always occur. That makes it worthy of our time. That makes it worthy of our attention.

“Just win the game.”

Simple words, and a potent message. Kevin Ware showed that he is a special individual while he was under the national spotlight. Other people faced with the same dire circumstances would have probably buckled.

This is exactly why we watch, and write, and analyze. When we see outstanding moments in sports, the good and the bad, we get a glimpse of truth. Enough to make the pursuit worthwhile.

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Posted on April 3, 2013, in Hank Mushinski, Posts, Sports Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think you may have just explained to me why I am finding sports more compelling as I grow older and our society’s institutions seem to be crumbling. I am finding this basketball season particularly compelling, particularly Louisville’s men’s and women’s teams. And particularly this game. Mr. Ware’s injury and his teammate’s reactions were very moving and inspiring. For me, it was an iconic event that recalls many moments as a parent watching league and school sports events where there were injuries and other kinds of challenges. A few of these moments were extraordinary in that kids acted heroically. The most moving of these moments to me were not connected to the winning of the game or event. As you point out, the meaning comes from the vulnerable experience of being human and the strength of our human connections. And the ability and willingness to sacrifice oneself in the service of others and the greater good. Thank you for observing and articulating so beautifully, Laura

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