ATLANTA – About 14 years ago, Venicia Hancock found a dinged-up acrylic backboard slumped behind a gas station wall in Roanoke. She haggled with the attendant, bought it for $20 and installed it outside their modest country home, nicknamed “The Treehouse” because of the second-story glass windows that overlook the front yard’s foliage. Four other families lived along the dead-end street, and soon the adults began waking up at 2 a.m., roused by the echo of Luke Hancock’s bouncing basketball.
Hancock was nursed on equal parts faith and sports, so his family and friends weren’t at all surprised that he rushed to Kevin Ware’s side last Sunday in Indianapolis. When Ware’s right leg shattered during Louisville’s Elite Eight matchup with Duke, Hancock dropped to both knees and prayed with him, the image a lasting symbol of the Cardinals’ camaraderie.
“It’s a tough injury in a tough situation, but we’re brothers for life,” Hancock said Friday, sporting a playoff beard more suited for hockey than basketball. “I have his back in any situation and I know he has mine. I don’t really know why I went out there. I just didn’t want him to be alone, I guess.”
Hancock, a 6-foot-6 junior forward who transferred from George Mason in 2011, is Louisville’s top three-point shooter entering Saturday’s Final Four matchup with Wichita State. He has become a vital bench cog in Coach Rick Pitino’s rotation and a calming, big-brother figure on a roster replete with outspoken characters.
When Hancock first arrived at Louisville for a summer weightlifting program, several star players showed up late to a 6:30 a.m. workout. New to town and unable to suit up in games for another year per NCAA transfer rules, Hancock still took his new teammates to task for mediocre leadership. Such confidence led Pitino to name Hancock a co-captain this offseason, even though he had yet to suit up for the Cardinals.
“He did anything we needed. It didn’t matter what it was,” said Bryon Allen, Hancock’s former teammate at George Mason. “Luke is a good guy. He does everything for his teammates. I know that’s the Luke we used to have here.”
For many reasons, this weekend is the culmination of a long journey for Hancock.
After earning all-state honors at Hidden Valley High School, Hancock prepped for a season at Hargrave Military Academy under current Louisville assistant Kevin Keatts. It was there that Jim Larranaga scouted Hancock during an hour-long scrimmage. Hancock scored two points and Larranaga left unconvinced. But Larranaga’s assistants, whom he unflinchingly trusts in such situations, begged the then-George Mason coach to reconsider. Returning to Fairfax, he called Hancock and offered him a scholarship.
Larranaga has an arsenal of Luke Hancock stories. On a preseason self-evaluation survey his freshman year, beneath the question, “How coachable are you?” Hancock rated himself a one — the least coachable. Called in for an individual meeting, Larranaga wondered if Hancock misunderstood the exercise.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
“I know when I make mistakes,” Larranaga recalled Hancock saying. “But I feel like I know what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t want someone in my ear all the time saying, ‘Do this, do that.’ I don’t think I’m very coachable, but I think I’m a smart player.”
That meeting — and their similar life circumstances — helped forge a deep trust between coach and player. Larranaga is the fifth of six children in his family. Hancock is the youngest of six, four of them older brothers.
“I guess my brothers beating up on me growing up has helped a little bit,” Hancock said.
Said Larranaga: “I think you become tougher and hardened because you have to fight through everything. I think he plays with a chip on his shoulder, like he has something to prove every night out. He’s not someone who’s been given a lot. He feels like he has to earn it.”
As Hancock’s skills diversified, Larranaga began leaning on him in late-game situations. During his sophomore season in 2011, Hancock helped salvage a 15-game winning streak by calling a risky lob play against Georgia State. Down 10 points at Northern Iowa in mid-February, Larranaga turned to his assistants and pleaded for change. But before any adjustments could be made, Hancock scored eight of George Mason’s next 11 points to kick-start the Patriots’ comeback.
The lasting image for George Mason’s fans, however, will always be of Hancock burying the game-winning three-pointer against Villanova in the first round of the 2011 NCAA tournament. It wound up being Hancock’s last game with the Patriots. Food poisoning sidelined him against overall No. 1 seed Ohio State in the next round, a humbling 98-66 loss. That offseason, after Larranaga accepted an offer to become Miami’s head coach, Hancock announced he was transferring. Louisville became his new treehouse.
Before going their separate ways, Venicia Hancock gave Larranaga a 60-page scrapbook filled with pictures snapped the day of the Villanova game. Posing with the police escort. Shootaround and practice in Cleveland. Hancock rising up for the winner, raising his arms after the final buzzer, hugging Larranaga during the celebration.
The book now resides atop a table in Larranaga’s office, beside framed portraits of the seniors from this year’s Miami team and a snapshot of Larranaga with Dwyane Wade. It’s a special book, Larranaga explains.