Most hoops-loving Kentuckians have vivid memories of the first time they were in Rupp Arena. For understandable reasons, Knott County Central sharpshooter Camron Justice is an exception.
When Raymond Justice Jr. and his wife Beth took their son to Rupp to see the 1997 Kentucky boys' high school basketball state tournament, the little boy was almost exactly one month old.
"He was born on Feb. 13," Raymond Justice said last week, "and he went to his first state tournament that next month."
This week, when the 97th Sweet Sixteen tips off, Camron Justice will be back in Rupp Arena. For the third straight year, the sweet shooting junior guard (25.5 points a game) — one of the top players in Kentucky's Class of 2015 — has led Knott County Central to our state's high school hoops promised land. The 14th Region champion Patriots (25-6) will face 4th Region winner Bowling Green (27-6) on Thursday at 1:30 p.m.
"It's our third straight year, and we're going down there with the idea we can do something," Camron Justice said last week.
With all respect to the Kentucky Derby and the annual Kentucky Wildcats-Louisville Cardinals grudge fests in football and basketball, the boys' Sweet Sixteen is, for my money, our state's most compelling annual sporting event. A big part of its appeal is the way it links the generations and their hoops dreams.
As a player at Belfry High School, Raymond Justice, now 55, dreamed of playing in the state tournament. "Wanted it more than anything," he said. "But, unfortunately, we never got farther than the (15th) Region semifinals when I was playing."
Yet as a young head coach, Raymond Justice created some Sweet Sixteen memories when he led Belfry teams that featured high-scoring guard J.J. Hylton to three straight state tournament appearances in 1990, '91 and '92.
"I was 29, 30 and 31," Raymond Justice said. "Belfry was my school, my Dad had been an educator there for 42 years. You are talking about a major thrill in my lifetime. I thought that was the top of the world."
Yet the elder Justice, now serving as an assistant on Knott Central Coach B.B. King's staff, says seeing his son take the floor in Rupp for state tournament games has, in a way only parents would understand, been even more exciting.
Camron Justice was not born when his dad coached Belfry to the state tourney. He says he's never watched even one tape of his dad's teams playing in the Sweet Sixteen. But he grew up listening to the stories. "I wanted to hear them all," he said.
When he stepped on the Rupp Arena court as a freshman for the 2012 state tournament, "I was so excited, but I was real nervous, too," Camron said. "I played horrible in that tournament."
Justice had 11 points in a first-round victory over Boone County, then had seven in a 36-34 quarterfinals loss to Oldham County.
In last season's state tournament, Rupp Arena fans got to see why schools such as Vanderbilt, Gonzaga, Boston College, Butler and Western Kentucky are in hot pursuit of the guard. Justice scored 29 points in a first-round win over Clay County, then came back with 24 more in a 68-53 loss to eventual state runner-up Ballard.
For those who crave a constant recruiting fix, Camron Justice says Tennessee, a school to whom he was briefly committed, is no longer involved in his recruitment. He said he has not heard from UK at all. Louisville, however, has invited him to take an unofficial visit to its campus, Justice said.
If the Kentucky Lions Eye Foundation persists in conducting Mr. Basketball voting before the season ends, how a junior performs in the state tournament could become a vital factor in determining who is voted the state's top senior the following year.
This week, junior standouts such as Raymond Spalding (Trinity), Jaqualis Matlock (Hopkinsville), Peyton Woods (Wayne County) and Justice have a chance to use the 2014 state tourney to turbo-charge their 2015 Mr. Basketball chances. (Holmes junior star James "Beetle" Bolden will hope memories are long regarding his stellar play in the 2013 state tourney).
Growing up in a "high school basketball family," Camron Justice says playing in Rupp Arena in the state tournament means "doing what I wanted to do my whole life. It's what I've dreamed about since I was born."
For a guy who was in Rupp Arena for the state tourney when he was barely a month out of the womb, that could be almost literally true.