Not Recoiling From a Leadership Role for Louisville - Chris Keane/Reuters
Luke Hancock, right, with Tim Henderson after Louisville beat Wichita State on Saturday.
In the moments immediately after Louisville guard Kevin Ware’s right leg snapped, it was virtually impossible not to recoil. A shard of bone jutted grotesquely through the skin, so players, coaches, officials and fans understandably — and uniformly — shrank back.
Except Luke Hancock. While everyone else was looking away or turning away, Hancock was going in the other direction. Hancock was the only player who immediately ran toward Ware after he crumpled, and he knelt beside his teammate and began praying with him, patting Ware’s chest over and over. He knew Ware was scared, he would say later, and he did not want his teammate to be alone.
This display of humanity is emblematic of a larger point about Louisville’s team. Hancock, a junior, transferred from George Mason in 2011 and was named a team captain before he ever played a game for Louisville — a development that speaks to Hancock’s character and, perhaps even more, to that of his teammates, who saw his motivation and accepted him as a leader despite barely knowing him.
Why? Now, a season of games later, they say they could simply see what everyone else saw when Ware was writhing on the court and Hancock ignored the screams and gasps and groans to kneel beside him. It is why the Louisville players mobbed him in celebration after Hancock scored 20 points during the Cardinals’ Final Four victory over Wichita State here Saturday.
Hancock is not the Cardinals’ most talented player (that is guard Russ Smith). And he is not their best-known player (that is surely Ware, who spent the last week doing a variety of interviews, including one on David Letterman’s talk show where he read the Top Ten list). But despite having played just one season for the Cardinals, Hancock is a significant piece of Louisville’s soul.
“He showed his leadership out there tonight,” guard Peyton Siva said after Saturday’s victory. “He showed his leadership when Kevin got injured. He’s an all-around great player and person. Tonight, he showed the world what he’s capable of doing.”
Hancock admits that he can be difficult to coach at times — mostly because he believes he has an advanced understanding of the game’s tactics — and Coach Rick Pitino opts to bring him off the bench in an effort to keep him out of foul trouble. He is also not the only leader on the Cardinals; Siva, a senior, is also a captain.
But Hancock’s passion is unmatched among his teammates, and it is that devotion that led Pitino to make him a captain.
The genesis of that unusual decision has two parts: first, Pitino had a lengthy discussion with Jim Larranaga, who coached Hancock at George Mason. Larranaga, who left George Mason for Miami (which prompted Hancock to transfer to Louisville), raved about Hancock’s mental capabilities and praised his passion.
Then, during his first off-season weight training program at Louisville, Hancock did not hesitate to make clear his own high standards. After the players opted to have some early-morning lifting sessions, Pitino recalled, two players — Smith and Rakeem Buckles, a former Cardinals forward — showed up late. Hancock, uninhibited by his status as the new guy, confronted them.
“Remember now, they’re just seeing Luke really for the first time,” Pitino said. “They knew him a little bit. Luke said, ‘That stuff is not going to cut it here at Louisville.’ And right away, you think some guys would answer back, ‘Who are you to say that?’ But they immediately said, ‘It’s our bad, it won’t happen again.’ ”
Leadership in sports often comes with murky motivations, but Hancock’s drive — it is the only way he knows how to act, he has said — is genuine. Yes, he arrived at Louisville with a track record, having hit the game-winning 3-pointer for George Mason in a 2011 N.C.A.A. tournament victory over Villanova, but his worth has always been about more than that.
It is also his presence, his teammates say. His willingness to push and prod and demand. His calm during a time of crisis, as when he dropped beside Ware — a player he used to compete with for playing time — and tried to convince him everything would be O.K.
“It surprised everybody,” forward Wayne Blackshear said of Hancock’s leadership. “But he was that first one there by Kevin when the accident happened, just trying to hold him and make him stay calm. It is great to have Luke.”
On Saturday, Hancock displayed all his attributes. In a game in which the Louisville starters struggled to score, Hancock and another reserve, the walk-on Tim Henderson, were the offensive sparks. Hancock drilled two critical 3-pointers late in the second half, nailing his shots not far from where Ware was sitting with his broken leg splayed across an adjacent chair.
Then, after Hancock missed a crucial free throw with eight seconds remaining, he made up for his mistake by forcing a critical (albeit disputed) jump ball, returning possession to the Cardinals as they finished off their victory.
Not surprisingly, Hancock is hesitant to offer much in the way of self-praise, and he has deflected questions about where his leadership skills come from, saying that it probably does not hurt that he was the youngest of six children.
“I guess my brothers beating up on me growing up has helped a little bit,” he said.
Now, Hancock is the proverbial older brother, and on Monday, he will join his teammates in trying to win Louisville’s first national title since 1986.
“He keeps the team together,” Smith said, and there can be little praise higher. Hancock is not the team’s best player, nor is he the most famous. It does not matter. He is simply its leader.