Justin Hardy, the Washington University in St. Louis basketball forward whose courage inspired players and fans nationwide, died Sunday, May 29, 2022, of stomach cancer. He was 22.
Pat Juckem, men’s basketball head coach, said Hardy was a leader whose love for the game was surpassed only by his love for his teammates.
“We feel Justin’s presence all of the time,” Juckem said. “From the moment he stepped foot on this campus, he has been a pillar both on and off the floor. No matter what was happening on the scoreboard — and we had plenty of success — we felt like every day was a win because we were in it together.”
Hardy was raised in the Chicago suburb of St. Charles and earned his degree in finance and accounting from Olin Business School in December, after just 3 1/2 years. He learned last spring that he had Stage 4 stomach cancer, a devastating and rare diagnosis for someone so young. Early rounds of chemotherapy left Hardy sapped. He lost 50 pounds and resigned himself to sitting out his final season. But when doctors gave Hardy the go-ahead to play, Hardy decided he would do everything in his power to help the Bears reach the NCAA tournament. The team had advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The entire 2020-21 season was canceled.
“At some point I had to come to terms,” Hardy told Stu Durando, basketball reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “This is my life now and one day it changed forever. If I want to live life, I have to choose to put my best foot forward and attack it with a positive mentality. Someone said, ‘Positivity kills cancer.’ I don’t feel happy with the situation, but I do with where I am in life.”
Hardy helped lead the Bears during their 13-game winning streak and scored 28 points, a career high, in two separate games. Hardy also was a leader in three-pointers and free throws. He was named first-team All-UAA (University Athletic Association) and second-team NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) All-District 8. Chancellor Andrew D. Martin was among his many fans.
“Justin lived like he played basketball, meeting each moment with uncommon determination and hope,” Martin said. “As we grieve alongside the Hardy family, we also thank them for the gifts that Justin brought to his teammates and friends at WashU. Our community is forever changed by his legacy of love and strength.”
Teammate and close friend Jack Nolan certainly has been.
“Everyone knows Justin’s incredible story about how he kept playing,” Nolan said. “But what changed me in so many ways was everything he did off the court. How, after a life-changing diagnosis, he became a better person, a better friend and a better teammate. He was just the most selfless person, always there with a text message or a gesture, checking in to make sure you’re OK.”
To show their support, Nolan, his teammates and Juckem designed #HardyStrong T-shirts emblazoned with the motto “You are stronger.” Soon Bears of all sports, fans — and even players representing rival teams — wore the shirts in solidarity. The community also came together to donate more than $100,000 to Hardy’s GoFundMe campaign to cover medical expenses and launch the HardyStrong Scholarship.
When ESPN journalist Gene Wojciechowski learned of Hardy’s remarkable season, he traveled to St. Louis to profile him for ESPN’s “College GameDay.” The story opened with Hardy sitting at a laptop writing a letter to himself.
“There will be plenty more great days to come. … This is all mind over matter,” Hardy typed.
“I don’t know how anyone could fail to be moved by Justin’s honesty, by the nature of the medical odds he faces, by the elegance of his iron will, and by an extraordinary brand of courage and inner strength that somehow overpowers Stage 4 cancer for the length of a college basketball game,” Wojciechowski wrote.
Nolan said Hardy struggled with the decision to go public with his diagnosis. He worried the attention would add further pain for his family and closest friends.
“But ultimately, he felt like telling his story could have a powerful and positive impact on a lot of people,” Nolan said. “And he was right.”
Hardy grew sicker as the season came to a close and was unable to travel to away games. But he did take the court one final time during the Bears’ final regular season game against UAA rival University of Chicago. With less than a minute on the clock, Hardy dribbled to the basket, exchanged a knowing smile with Chicago’s Bryce Hopkins and scored his last basket. The Bears and Maroons hugged each other as final seconds ticked away. The Bears did earn a ticket to the NCAA tournament, but were unable to advance to the Sweet 16 after a tough 2-point loss.
In April, Hardy was surrounded by his teammates when he received the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Perry Wallace Most Courageous Award in New Orleans. In May, sports announcer Dick Vitale paid tribute to Hardy at his annual gala to raise money for cancer research. And at Commencement, Andrew E. Newman, chair of Washington University’s Board of Trustees, honored Hardy before a crowd of 15,000 students and their families and friends. Hardy was supposed to serve as an honorary marshal. Juckem was present for all three events.
“Justin’s story has resonated with so many people at Washington University and beyond,” Juckem said. “What we saw this year — his courage, his toughness, his commitment to his teammates — is really mind-blowing. We were in awe on a daily basis.”
Hardy is survived by his parents, Bob and Karen Hardy; sister, Jackie Hardy; and brother, Nathan Hardy. The family will host a visitation from 2 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 2, at Yurs Funeral Home in Geneva, Ill., and a legacy celebration at 1 p.m. Friday, June 3, at St. Charles East High School. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the HardyStrong Scholarship.