The Western Kentucky men's basketball team was away in Atlanta preparing for a game against Ole Miss in the early-morning hours of Saturday, Dec. 11 when it heard the news that a devastating tornado was ravaging the area surrounding the university. WKU coach Rick Stansbury said his players and staff talked about the storm all day, and after his Hilltoppers routed the Rebels 71-48 late that night, he immediately told reporters the team's hearts "are still back in Bowling Green."
For one WKU player, that rang particularly true. Camron Justice had been married for less than a month when the storm hit, and his wife was back in Bowling Green at their apartment while he was in Atlanta with the Hilltoppers.
"Fortunately, nothing happened to her," said Justice, a Kentucky native. "But for everybody in Bowling Green and Mayfield, just know that we have you on our mind and we're playing a game that's much bigger than just a game."
That's been the message from the WKU hoops team since the storm hit, and it's been the impetus for a couple big wins. The Hilltoppers beat Ole Miss easily and then knocked off Louisville at home 82-72 at home last Saturday behind a 25-point effort from Justice to provide something for the community and region to celebrate amid a tragic time. In total, 76 deaths have been reported in the wake of the vicious storm cell, along with extensive damage in places like Mayfield, Dawson Springs and Bowling Green.
Stansbury is quick to point out that basketball should be kept in perspective amid the destruction. But in the hoops-crazed state of Kentucky, there is no more significant cultural reprieve than what's found on the hardwood. As Stansbury said Monday, the games can hopefully provide "something else to talk about."
It's also providing a forum to generate donations for the recovery effort, and that "bigger than just a game" theme was on display again Wednesday night as Kentucky agreed on short notice to host the Hilltoppers for the first time since WKU knocked off the Wildcats 64-52 at Rupp Arena to open the 2001-02 season. Kentucky won 95-60 in a game that doubled as a toy drive for families in need after the storms.
Key to the Hilltoppers' game plan was Justice, a seventh-year senior playing at his third school whose winding career journey came full circle as he finished with 13 points in a long-awaited return to Rupp Arena.
College basketball is older than ever and full of players with multiple transfers under their belts who are using an extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But Justice, who will turn 25 in February, may be the only one who altogether moved on from the game, became a graduate assistant and then returned to the court as a player while working on a second master's degree.
Landing a GA gig
Justice arrived at Western Kentucky as a graduate transfer senior for the 2019-20 season after a standout junior season for IUPUI in 2018-19 that earned him second-team All-Horizon League honors.
While playing through a back injury, he averaged 10.1 points for a 20-win WKU team that finished tied for second in Conference USA. It was a squad that would've had the chance to earn the league's automatic NCAA Tournament bid if not for the disruptions brought on by COVID-19, which wiped out the sport's postseason in 2020. After five injury-plagued years of college basketball, that was it for Justice. He went through WKU's senior day ceremony two weeks after his 23rd birthday, scored 15 points in the final game and then went home to eastern Kentucky to be with family amid the pandemic.
But for a kid who grew up in a gym as the son of a high school and college coach, Justice couldn't totally shake his ties to the hardwood. So nearly a year after his last game -- sometime around February of this year -- he reached out to Stansbury to talk about entering the coaching profession.
"He kind of just told me to stay in touch and that he would do everything he can to get me into the coaching world," Justice said.
Stansbury helped Justice land a graduate assistant position back at WKU that began this summer. The position focused on facilitating academic success within the program. Then, in the last week of July, a few weeks after he returned to campus, Justice played in a pick-up game with WKU's players at Stansbury's suggestion.
"I had kind of gotten out of the aspect of really working on my game," Justice said. "But I was still playing a little bit here and there, still getting some shots up and stuff like that, but nothing crazy. Then, I don't know, I guess it was just the fate of how everything worked out."
Stansbury called Justice into his office to talk to him about rejoining the team and, as Justice says, "the rest is history."
Well, sort of.
Back to basketball
The issue of getting NCAA clearance to play another season still remained. The NCAA had to agree that since Justice played in just seven games at Vanderbilt as a sophomore in the 2016-17 season before transferring to IUPUI, the season should not count against his eligibility. That, combined with his long list of injuries and the NCAA leniency on eligibility amid the pandemic, stamped his case.
There was also another conflict. Justice and his then-fiancee had a wedding date set for the first week of the season. In a hectic early-November week, Justice received word that he would be eligible, got married and then drove with his wife to Asheville to join the Hilltoppers for his first game in more than 600 days.
"The toughest aspect was just going from playing casual basketball to playing competitive basketball," Justice said. "It's two different things. The hardest aspect was just getting back into shape. You take a year off from playing high-level basketball and then, all of the sudden, just like that, I was back. I went through some strenuous conditioning trying to get myself back in shape. I was just trying not to hurt my body at the same time so I could be healthy. It was definitely frustrating but it all paid off."
After coming off the bench in his first four appearances, Justice is now starting and thriving in a role that requires as much of his mind as it does his body.
"I think coach knows that the reason I'm playing so good at this level is my IQ," Justice said. "I'm not the most athletic. I'm not the strongest. I'm not the biggest. My IQ and my savviness is kind of what's gotten me to this stage. He kind of treats me as kind of like a player's coach when I'm out there on the court."
But as Justice showed with his offensive outburst against Louisville, he can still get buckets as well. He drilled all five of his 3-point attempts in the 82-72 win over the Cardinals and scored 18 points in the first half alone inside a packed E.A. Diddle Arena.
Return to Rupp
Raised in the tiny eastern Kentucky town of Hindman, Justice grew up watching Kentucky just like everyone else in the state. As the son of a high school and college coach in Kentucky, he says he grew up in a gym. By middle school, he knew he could play college basketball, and he initially committed to Tennessee in 2013 before signing with Vanderbilt in the 2015 recruiting class. Justice said part of the reason he signed with Vanderbilt was for the opportunity to play at Kentucky.
He logged seven minutes for the Commodores in their game at Rupp Arena during the 2015-16 season but did not score as the Wildcats won 76-57. To put in perspective how long ago that was: among the other players on the court in the game was a Kentucky guard named Jamal Murray, who is now in his sixth NBA season.
After coach Kevin Stallings left Vanderbilt for Pittsburgh, things changed for Justice. He was coming off a serious surgery following his freshman season and playing for a new coach, Bryce Drew, who hadn't recruited him. So he set out on the journey. Now, six years, two transfers, several injuries and one graduate assistantship later, Justice will finally play in Rupp Arena again
Nearly two years ago, before his first senior day at WKU as he neared the end of a college career he described at the time as "bumpy," Justice acknowledged that much of his career hadn't gone as planned.
"For somebody who was coming up, I would just tell them, 'don't look at anybody else's journey and think your journey is supposed to look like that,'" Justice said at the time. "Everybody has got their own road that they follow, and it don't matter how you get to the top."
But even he couldn't have imagined the road his career would take and how two years after his first senior season he would be back in college basketball playing against the two biggest programs in his home state and giving a recovering community "something else to talk about."
"It's one of those things where you've got to seize the opportunity," Justice said. "We had the opportunity to play Louisville and ended up coming out victorious in that. Now we're playing Kentucky in Rupp Arena. So this is everything an eastern Kentucky kid could dream for."