O'Neil: Louisville's song finishes in glory

April, 9, 2013
4/09/13
4:30
AM ET
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.

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 take two schools to a national title. Only three years ago, he was a punch line mired in an embarrassing scandal. 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 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," 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 any other coach in the game.

For Dana O'Neil's full column, click here.

Dana O'Neil | email

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