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A Break That Never Fully Heals
Kevin Ware Jr. is best known for breaking his leg in a nationally televised N.C.A.A. tournament game. He is determined not to let the moment define him.
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By Jack Williams
There are few guarantees in sport, but there’s one certainty when it comes to being Kevin Ware Jr. Wherever the game of basketball takes him — a doughnut shop in rural Finland, a gym in Greece or a court in the Czech Republic — someone will bring up the injury.
During a 2013 N.C.A.A. men’s tournament game against Duke, Ware, a guard playing for Louisville, leaped to block a shot. He landed awkwardly, and his leg broke so badly that the bone tore through his skin. Television viewers were spared the sight, but the shock on the faces of Ware’s teammates was upsetting enough.
Ware was instantly compared to Joe Theismann, the N.F.L. quarterback who suffered a similar leg break in front of a national television audience. Theismann later offered support to Ware, as did the basketball stars Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Ware’s injury healed, but the memory lingered, not so much for him, but for those who saw what had happened. And that is why Ware is best known not for his physical gifts — he has played professional basketball all over the world — but instead for the split second nearly a decade ago when his body let him down.
He is determined not to let the moment define him, even if others think it does.
“It was one of those situations,” he said. “I just got used to it.”
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After he recovered, Ware transferred to Georgia State for his final two years of college, where he played “OK basketball,” only for reality to then set in. “I was feeling like I wouldn’t have a chance to make it to the N.B.A., so I literally said, ‘I’m going to go overseas,’” he said.
Ware took the first offer that came his way in 2016: a chance to play for Kauhajoki Karhu in the top tier of Finnish basketball. “I’m from New York originally, so I’m used to the cold and the snow,” Ware said. The hard part was adjusting to life in a municipality of about 13,000.
“It was so small that we could bike from our apartments to the gym, and we had one doughnut shop, one more restaurant, maybe — it was so different. Mentally, I was not prepared for that.”
Acknowledging now that he might have rushed into things, Ware knew that once he started he had to keep moving. Next was Basket Brno in the Czech Republic, then a team in Larissa, Greece, then the London Lightning in Ontario and then back to Finland for a spell with a team in Uusikaupunki (population: 15,000).
In those early years, he said, he was earning “maybe 5 percent of what an N.B.A. contract was.” He was an itinerant pro, but still a pro.
He would later play all over the world map. Though the next location was never certain, one theme was constant: “Everybody always knew who I was because of the injury,” he said.
It wasn’t all bad. Ware believes that a life of travel has made him stronger and more open-minded. Initially he shied away from talking about his break. He once wrote that the attention his injury received caused him to want to avoid people, particularly in college. Now, after so many people have mentioned it — and in so many countries — he has learned to respond with understated humor. Something like, “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
Being overseas brought its own life lessons, too. Ware said he struggled to get paid in some countries, which taught him to focus on cold, hard offers rather than promises of growing leagues and potential exposure.
He navigated the coronavirus pandemic while living in Britain. He represented the Jordanian national team in Dubai. And a brief stint playing in Baghdad made him realize that the way of life there isn’t bad — even if the economics of his deal actually were.
And, of course, wherever he went, the injury went with him.
Recently, after a stint in Argentina, Ware returned to the United States to spend time with his family in Georgia. While there, he began weighing an attempt to play in America once more. A summer league team, perhaps? Maybe a spot on an Atlanta Hawks affiliate in the N.B.A.’s G League?
Having finished in the gym one day, he headed to play pickup basketball, only to land awkwardly after a dunk. This time there was no national audience watching him get hurt, but Ware still had to deal with a discouraging diagnosis: a broken bone in his knee. He needed surgery.
He is currently recovering from that operation and hopes to return to the court early next year. He has accepted that some people will always know him, and pity him more than a little bit, for what happened to him on March 21, 2013. But he believes they are missing the best part of the story.
“Some people, they truly believe I died after I had that leg injury,” Ware, 29, said. “If I was to give them a rundown of what I’ve been doing, a national team in this country, that country, they’d be, like, ‘Wow, you had a really good career.’”