ATLANTA -- The six inches of twine were twisted between Luke Hancock's middle and forefinger. He was finally walking off the court, never fully stopping, but slowing to give hugs and hand-pounds to friends, family and fans waiting for him.
He had just ascended a ladder, snipped a souvenir made of string and begun to explain away his feelings, that great game he and his team had in beating Michigan to a final of 82-76. What it was like to score 42 points over Final Four two games and become the first bench player in tournament history to win Most Outstanding Player. He greeted some thrilled members of the Cardinals' pep band, who'd made their way to relish the fête on the court. Their faces of joy were so infectious, I have regrets over not being ready to snap a picture.
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As One Shining Moment played on the videoboards, Hancock kept his eyes angled up, looking far to the screen in the south end of the building, slowing his responses to the questions from reporters huddled around him. An engaging distraction. His facial expression didn't much change. Just wonderment, I guess. That's when it looked like this was all hitting him, as obviously cheesy as it is.
When the song was over, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich pulled Hancock aside for 30 seconds for a private moment on the floor. They exchanged comforting words on the triumph and pride and what this was about. For the team, for Rick Pitino, for Kevin Ware.
But for Hancock, above all, especially for his gravely ill father, Bill. He and wife, Ven, made it from Roanoke, Va., to the games this weekend, sickness be damned. The story of his decreasing health started to leak only in recent days. It has been a private and heavily emotional, of course. Luke Hancock has carried it with him for too long now, but the emotions swell on such a huge stage.
Luke lifted Louisville because dad -- and family -- lifted him even as disease choked out too many good days. But now in the throes of the best victory, Luke's teammates, his other family, were waiting and already celebrating behind the big blue locker room door. He had to get back there.
The sound of "LUUUUUUUUUUUUUU" continued to coat the lower area of the Georgia Dome from the few thousands Louisville fans still sticking around in seats before the help ushered them away.
Hancock and Pitino were the only ones left not yet back there. Hancock accelerated his gait -- and then a stop. He hesitated, took one step back toward the stands, then reconsidered. He kept going, throwing up hands to the fans, then disappearing through the tunnel, taking a right around the red rope that led to the Louisville locker room.
The twine was still in his left hand. It's for his father. He was going to give it to him right then, out in the stands. Instead, he'll wait for a quieter moment.
"He'll get it at home," Hancock said. "Definitely."
One of the reasons why college basketball will be forever appealing to me and many of you is because of what Luke Hancock did over the course of the season's final weekend. The lightly recruited kid -- out of, and I'm not kidding here, a high school named "Hidden Valley" -- who came off the bench to have the biggest and best weekend. He started his career at Hargrave Military Academy before getting into George Mason.
A coaching change at Mason two springs ago brought him to Louisville, where he was named team captain before playing a game in a Cards uniform. And this year, as Louisville reeled off 16 straight wins on its way to the third title in program history, Hancock eventually turned himself from polarizing bench player that couldn't find his groove into a dangerous dagger of an offensive player who showed himself true and large in the most perfect of moments. And now he's a hero forever in that city.
"Everybody hated me," Hancock said in a joking tone that carried realism, talking of his play for the first two months of the season. He had the trophy pressed against his chest in the locker room, cameras' harsh lights flaring on his bushy beard, which he's all too happy to shave off as soon as possible.
Once the frustrating sixth man, now the best man on the two most important nights. He is the MOP. And deserving, especially after that inspiring Saturday night performance. Louisville had 24 bench points Monday night in the second-largest come-from-behind victory in title-game history. Hancock, tying a career high, provided all but two of them (most by a sub in a title game in 49 years); the other two were jaw-dropping. Hancock was 5-of-6 from the field, all five made shots from beyond the arc. The five 3s set the new title-game record for 3-point percentage. He also went 7-for-10 from the foul line in 30 minutes.
"Once our momentum gets going like that, it's a ride," Russ Smith said. "He's so very underrated. He's so skilled."
The junior had a run of 14 consecutive points to bring Louisville back from the Spike Albrecht show. For a good while there, Michigan was rolling thanks to a sparkplug bench player that was burying 3 after 3 after 3. But Hancock was relentless, looking like the team's most vital offensive weapon, an accolade Pitino has been tossing out on his behalf for a while now.
"He's living in the moment, then," fellow 'Ville reserve Stephen Van Treese said. "He's loving it out there."
Hancock carried the trophy from the locker room to the press room. He held on to it on the trek back to the locker room, where he gave reporters a few more minutes before NCAA personnel escorted away the press horde. He donned a tilted, crooked championship hat, the stiff brim cocked low to an angle, just barely touching his left ear.
Hancock's face was relaxed. He looked like he expected this. There was no overwhelming body language. It was a happy daze, not a permasmile, like many of his teammates were donning as they packed up and made their way to the bus. To win this, the short-term thrill for him and his dad, that's just chilling to me. Who knows how long he'll get to share the joy with pops. Hopefully as long as possible.
Louisville makes for a memorable champion because there are very emotional sidebars attached to this team. Pitino's never loved a group more, he says. The Ware injury is already a tourney burn for all of our memories. The backdrop of sadness and urgency with Hancock brings weight to a story that's unfortunate. Ultimately, winning this year could prove timely in the most grave of ways. I so hope that's not the case, but it could be.
And what a darkening thought amid the lights of a championship. Those thoughts had to be on the young man's mind as March peeled to April, the run continuing to go toward something so massive. As more than an hour passed since the game went final, Hancock began talking about team accomplishment -- but also his own.
"Do they give out a trophy?" he asked about his MOP award. "I don't know. I'd like one."
That he could keep. The string goes to dad.