It’s Thanksgiving in Las Vegas. ASU men’s basketball trails Kansas State by two with 14 minutes remaining in the first game of the Continental Tire Invitational.
Shannon Evans pounds the ball up the court for the Sun Devils and tosses the ball to a trailing Kodi Justice, who squares his shoulders to the basket and pulls up from 27 feet as two Wildcats scramble to close out.
They were too late. He buried it.
On ASU’s next offensive possession, Justice catches the ball at the same spot. Rather than testing his range once more, he switches the ball to his left hand and furiously dribbles toward the basket, taking two powerful steps before casually lofting the ball above his defender’s outstretched fingers.
Of course, it went in. Justice thought it would, even if everyone in the building didn’t.
That sequence in Las Vegas, along with many others in the senior guard’s electrifying college career, finds its roots in Mesa. Pickup games at the park, training in the garage and 1-on-1 bouts with his brother molded Justice into the player he is today. Justice might claim that he doesn’t listen to naysayers, but he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t.
“When I got to ASU, there were people saying, ‘Oh, he’ll be lucky if he’s a role player or even gets spot minutes,’” Justice said. “My whole life has just been proving people wrong. When people tell me I can’t do something, I end up doing it.”
Justice was told he couldn’t play with the adults in pickup games, so he’d stand in the corner and work on his moves. He was a scrawny seventh-grader with a big head who hadn’t proved anything. That was, until they finally let him play.
“I was playing against grown men that were like 25 years old,” Justice said. “They were trash talking, like, ‘This little kid can’t do this’ or ‘I don’t want to hurt him’ and I’d go out there and dominate everybody.”
In one ear and out the other, right? Nope.
Justice thrives on doubt. He doesn’t shut it out, get upset or quit – he fills a canister with it and pours it on the fire. His greatest catalyst came in the summer before his freshman year of high school.
While training with his dad, Justice heard the words that set off his journey to ASU: “I don’t think you’re good enough to play at Mesa Community College.”
That’s harsh coming from a parent. Oddly enough, it’s exactly what Justice needed to fuel his relentless work ethic. He’s not 100 percent sure that his dad was just trying to motivate him, but Justice laughed and said he’d “like to think so.”
In his first year at Dobson, Justice was the star of the junior varsity team while varsity coach Rick McConnell maintained his strict philosophy of not playing freshmen at the highest level. It was about development first and foremost.
“They just kind of let me run the show,” Justice said. “I think I scored like 25 points and averaged like 10 assists my freshman year (on JV).”
While Justice was technically on the varsity roster and made an appearance in a Christmas tournament, that summer’s AAU circuit was where he’d finally break through. He’d already had Division I offers despite his lack of varsity experience, but one performance etched his place in the recruiting landscape.
Playing for a local AAU team at the time, Justice dropped 40 points on the No. 1 team in the country. That night, he said, he received an offer from every school in the Pac-12. He also got a call to play for Compton Magic, an elite AAU team that has produced over 100 professional players in the NBA and overseas.
All the attention Justice received seemed like validation – a sign that all the hours spent in the garage and at the park were worth it. His decision ended up being a no-brainer: Stay close to your family and go to the school 15 minutes down the road.
Justice said his commitment to ASU was cemented when McConnell talked about how hard it was when his son, Mickey, left home to play for Saint Mary’s after starring at Dobson.
“Just to be able to look up in the stands every game and see my family and friends, that was enough for me to commit here,” Justice said. “I wanted to be here with the ones I love.”
Sophomore year at Dobson rolled around and Justice was on the varsity squad full-time, committed to play Division I basketball and confident as ever. Nobody knew it at the time, but beneath that boisterous exterior was a kid struggling with dyslexia.
Like every other challenge put in front of him, Justice faced his disorder without fear, overcoming it thanks to a lot of hours behind the scenes. It wasn’t until his junior year at Dobson that he started talking about dyslexia with people outside his own family.
“There are other little kids who are in the same shoes I was in,” Justice said. “There are parents that don’t know how to deal with it – my parents were the same way.
“It’s not an easy thing, and there are kids that are going to struggle with it and won’t know what it means to be dyslexic and how to deal with it.”
Dyslexia, frustrating and challenging as it was, proved to be just another obstacle that Justice broke through. A fractured foot during his freshman year at ASU didn’t hold him back, either. When he was forced to play center at times for the undersized Sun Devils last season, he embraced it and held his own as best he could.
The trials always pay dividends for Justice. He continues to defy doubters as his college career approaches its end, making the improbable plays that define his role as a leader.
But the thing is, he’s been achieving the improbable his whole life.