Catching up with Justice, on lockdown in Italy, reminiscing about Guard U
Kodi Justice is like most Americans right now. He’s cooped up in his apartment, trying to find anything and everything that can occupy his time for even a few minutes at a time.
But Justice’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a tad different than most Americans. His apartment is in Trieste, Italy -- a convenient location most days when he’s practicing with Pallacanestro Trieste of the LBA (Italy’s top-tier basketball league).
But it became less than convenient a few weeks ago, when the pandemic struck Italy more than any other country, causing a nationwide lockdown about 10 days ago. The whole country is mandated to only leave their homes before 6 p.m. and only to go to the grocery store or pharmacy.
“My wife is here so we’re just trying to keep ourselves occupied as much as possible by staying busy,” Justice said. “We’ll clean the house, we’ll go shopping, we’ll cook, we’ll bake. I’ll play video games … we’re definitely getting a little stir-crazy right now.”
His workouts, too, have been quarantined to his small patio, just enough size to get in a quasi-prison workout of push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks.
“Literally, that’s all that I can do,” Justice said. “(I’m) just trying to get a sweat.”
As of now, Justice’s LBA league is a lot like the NBA. Both are on an indefinite suspension with no clue when, or if, the season will resume. Two weeks ago, the league was going to try and keep going. They played a game with no fans -- an atmosphere that Justice said made the players lethargic and the game feel longer than ‘The Irishman.’
No matter, Justice finished with 17.
Pallacanestro Trieste even tried to keep practicing after the pandemic halted its season. The team facilities were still in full operation and practices were being scheduled. That was no longer an option when the Italian squad had a COVID-19 scare.
One of Justice’s teammates had recently been with someone who tested positive for the virus. Everything shut down. His teammate went on and tested negative, which meant Trieste’s roster wasn’t forced to get tested. But, by that time, the country was on lockdown. Practice wasn’t an option.
Justice’s former college teammates, Shannon Evans II and Tra Holder, are more fortunate. Their leagues -- in Hungary and Poland, respectively -- were outright canceled, not just postponed. That meant they could leave Europe with no repercussions.
As for Justice, heading back to the states would have been a massive gamble. Because of the fluidity of U.S. government actions and travel bans, if Justice was in Phoenix and the LBA resumed suddenly, there’s a chance he wouldn’t have made it back. That would have been a breach of his contract and likely got him cut without pay.
Holder is relieved that wasn’t the case for him in Poland. He’s been back in the States for almost a week, right after the NBA suspended their season, causing many other leagues in Europe to do the same. Scared of a travel ban coming, Holder and the rest of the Americans hopped on a plane back to the U.S. as fast as possible.
“I got lucky,” Holder said.
In Tempe, Justice, Holder, and Evans will always be remembered as the founding fathers of ASU’s ‘Guard U’ moniker and the spark plug that has turned the Sun Devils into a consistently relevant program.
And after their season ended in 2018, the trio embarked on a life of international basketball -- one full of culture shocks, language barriers and a less free-flowing style of basketball. So, the trio stick together through their group chat, a sounding board for problems, struggles and questions.
“I’m the youngest American on a team full of Polish players,” Holder said. “There was a gap between us and so it was hard to relate sometimes. When you have Kodi or Shannon in a different country, it helps you talk through some of the adversity you may go through.”
“Most weeks, we’ll talk once or twice a week. Just, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing? What are you guys up to? How’s the season going?’” Justice added. “We'll try and stay in contact as much as possible because it’s definitely (hard).”
Justice is a self-described basketball junkie -- so much so that he’ll just type in “Full basketball game” into Google and watch the first contest that pops up. A few days ago, just because, he watched Game 4 of the 2017 Finals (the Cavaliers only win over the Warriors that series).
But, he has also had time to reflect and revisit his senior season. Remember that? The 12-0 start. The last undefeated team in the nation. The No. 3 ranking. The wins over Xavier, Kansas State and Kansas. The NCAA Tournament berth and First Four loss to Syracuse. Yeah, all that.
“We all talked about how we watched the Kansas game, the Xavier game, the Kansas State game. Just some of the games we were playing so well and having so much fun just wishing we could go back,” Justice said. “You forget how much fun we were having.”
Added Holder: “I watch old highlights all the time … Shannon, Kodi and I will talk about a game we had our senior year and then I’ll watch it.”
Justice is already willing to declare that senior season as “the greatest year, basketball-wise,” that he -- and maybe Holder and Evans, too -- will ever have. He credits a lot of that to Hurley and the freedom ASU’s coach affords his players -- a notion that is non-existent in European basketball.
The 6-foot-4 shooting guard who averaged 12.7 points a game his senior year while shooting over 45 percent was, especially during his time in Tempe, proud of being a Phoenix kid who grew up loving ASU. And, even in Europe, that hasn’t wavered.
He still routinely woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. to watch the Sun Devils this year. He trains at Weatherup Center in the offseason and will trade texts with coaches and players throughout the season.
And even Hurley will ask him a favor.
When the Sun Devils started Pac-12 play 1-3 this year, Hurley reached out to the three founding members of ‘Guard U’ and asked them to record a video about what the program meant to them -- a motivational tactic for his struggling team.
“(I just said) what ASU meant to me just being a local kid. How much Hurley means to me. Every team will go through ups and downs and we knew they were a younger team. We wanted them to push through. Don’t separate in the locker room. Come together.
“Us three --me, Shannon and Tra -- that was our biggest message: Just make sure whatever they were going to do, they were going to do it together … Once you’re divided in the locker room, you’re never going to win.”
It seemed to work. ASU won nine of its next 10 games and seemed to definitively be on the right side of the bubble before everything came to a screeching halt.
Justice was excited to see what the Devils could do in March this season. Most in Tempe felt ASU could make its deepest March run under Hurley. Instead, Justice, and everyone else, can take some solace in watching old highlights of the team that got the ball rolling in Tempe.