WashU basketball honors Justin Hardy’s legacy with HardyStrong Day
“You write your story. From the opening cover to the very last page. This disease cannot take that away from you. Go out there and defy the odds. Rewrite how to live with cancer. You are going to do some incredible things.”
When asked to write a letter to himself for the ESPN documentary “Mind over Matter,” these were the words Justin Hardy chose to conclude it. While Hardy passed away from stomach cancer in May 2022, the Washington University community is ensuring that his story is never forgotten.
Hardy graduated from the University in December 2021. He gained national attention for his perseverance and tenacity as he underwent chemotherapy for Stage 4 cancer while playing his senior season for the WashU men’s basketball team.
On Friday, Jan. 26, the WashU men’s and women’s basketball teams honored that legacy in their annual HardyStrong game. During their first home conference games of the spring semester, the teams collaborated with the HardyStrong Foundation to raise awareness of gastric cancer and celebrate Hardy’s legacy.
“All of us feel an awesome responsibility to do our part. We are all better people for spending time with him. It’s now on us to continue it. In little ways, it’s as simple as just living life with this mindset. He was so positive even in the face of such difficult odds…” said head coach Pat Juckem, who coached Hardy for four years. “If the world had a lot more Justin Hardy’s, the world would be a lot better off.”
Hardy’s legacy, according to Juckem, is one of overcoming adversity and living life to the fullest.
“Even in that last year of his life, which ended up being an incredibly impactful year, he even said it himself that ‘you wouldn’t believe this, but this has been my favorite year,’” Juckem said. “Post diagnosis, he was going to live his life and squeeze everything out, and he absolutely did that.”
For Juckem and the WashU men’s basketball team, Hardy’s legacy is special. “It’s really personal, because he’s one of us,” Juckem said. “We still have several players in our program that got to live that journey with him.”
Players on the team are reminded of Justin every time they enter their locker room, where Justin’s locker, featuring his jersey and basketball shoes, remains untouched. They are reminded of Justin every time they don a WashU jersey, which features a blue HardyStrong patch above the player’s heart. While the juniors and seniors on the team got to know Justin personally, the first-years and sophomores have only heard stories. Juckem and the upperclassmen want to ensure that Justin’s legacy is always a part of this program.
“We want a student athlete [who’s] here 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 50 years from now, we want to be very clear to them how unique and powerful this story and this young man was,” the coach said.
On Friday night, all four teams playing — the men’s and women’s teams from both WashU and Carnegie Mellon — honored Justin. In a ceremony before the men’s game, the teams welcomed the Hardy family to the center of the court as a packed fieldhouse crowd rose to its feet in a standing ovation. After audio clips from Justin were played over the speakers, the Hardy family was presented with a check for over $7,000 raised by the WashU community for the HardyStrong Foundation.
The foundation, which was started after Justin’s death, works to “to increase awareness and support of Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer, provide resources that improve access to genetic testing for cancer risk, and honor the legacy of Justin Hardy through scholarships to exemplary scholar athletes,” according to its website. Hardy’s parents — Karen and Bob — and two siblings — Jackie and Nathan — serve on the board of the foundation, as does Juckem, who considers it an honor to be a part of the organization.
“The HardyStrong Foundation is now in its second year and had an absolutely incredible first year…While it couldn’t save him, his life is gonna save many others, let alone make others lives better,” Juckem said.
As part of the foundation’s mission to honor Hardy’s legacy, Jack Nolan, Hardy’s former WashU basketball teammate, has led a speaker series, giving different teams a firsthand perspective about Hardy’s impact.
In his talks, Nolan circles back to a central question: what would you do if you were told you had 12-18 months to live? Although he tries not to script out his speeches — “this is a story that should come from the heart,” he said — he finds himself circling back to Hardy’s relentless positivity, his resilience, and the love that he showed to his community.
“After Justin passed away, I mean, it took me a year and a half to really have any words at all,” Nolan said. “There are things, you know, that last year, that are definitely hard to talk about. But the overwhelming majority of the memories have just been so positive, so happy, so joyous. I made a big emphasis around how Justin felt like he was living the best year of his life that last year. And I really think that was due to how he treated everyone else around him.”
Ultimately, the speaker series hopes to bring Hardy’s story to as many people as possible — whether varsity basketball programs, collegiate teams, or even in the business sector. “It’s a story that has the ability to inspire everyone,” Nolan said.
Juckem also recognizes how special Justin’s story is, and how important it is to keep sharing it. “I keep saying that at some point, this will be a movie, because it’s that kind of a story that needs to be told on whatever scale is necessary.”
Along with the HardyStrong Foundation, WashU’s Relay for Life club was present at the game to raise money and awareness for their annual event, held on April 6, 2024.
The night ended with a memorable win for the WashU team. In a back-and-forth thriller, the Bears pulled away from Carnegie Mellon in the second half for a 95-87 victory.
“The fact that we could honor him, have his family out here on this court that meant so much to them, raise money for the foundation, and then play in a way that I thought he would’ve been proud of — with belief, and connectivity, and together,” Juckem said after the game.
“This was a Justin Hardy day in so many different ways.”
You can learn more about the HardyStrong foundation and donate here: https://www.hardystrong.org/donate
Clara Richards contributed reporting to this article.