Greene brings Brooklyn toughness to Kent State



Photo illustration by Phil Botta.

Nick Shook

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines toughness as “capable of enduring strain, hardship, or severe labor.”

Kent State senior Justin Greene is a perfect example of the definition of toughness, both on and off the court. The 2010-11 Mid-American Conference Player of the Year has overcome injury and adversity and is now coming to the end of an historic career as a member of the Flashes basketball team.

Greene wasn’t always the player that he is today, though.

The 6-foot-8 forward didn’t even play organized basketball until the 8th grade after moving from the small town of Ehrhardt, S.C., where football is the dominant sport, to Brooklyn, N.Y.

“(Ehrhardt) is a very small town,” Greene said. “Probably not even on the map.”

Greene’s move from South Carolina to New York forced him to adjust to an entirely new pace of life.

“It was rough, because coming from South Carolina, such a slow pace and New York is so fast-paced, so up-tempo, so different from what I was used to,” Greene said. “I was by myself. I had to meet new friends, get familiar with everything and find my way around.”

Greene spent most of his free time on the public basketball courts in Brooklyn playing pick-up games and getting better at the sport.

“Coney Island is like the ultimate basketball city and everywhere you look, there’s a basketball court on each block,” Greene said. “That’s all I did was go to people’s parks and play basketball against other guys. That’s how I kind of earned respect. That’s how guys got to know me, through playing basketball.

“In New York, it’s tough, it’s grimy and you have to be tough to be able to play,” Greene said. “Guys will take your heart in a second and if you let them, then your day is going to be over. I always wanted to be one of the best players I could be when I’m playing. I took it as a challenge to try to prove that I could play with those guys, and it definitely helped me a lot.”

Greene’s father supported his career ambition of playing basketball at the collegiate level and offered helpful advice, but never forced the sport on him.

“He always let us, me and my two brothers, know that we can do whatever we wanted to do,” Greene said. “He was excited for me when I decided to play basketball, and when I really started to actually get good at it, he was always there for me. He was always somebody I could talk to when I had a bad game or a good game. Regardless of any situation that I had, I knew I could always talk to him.”

Greene lived in the 21st school district in New York, which led to his enrollment in Abraham Lincoln High School, a school nationally renowned for its basketball history.

“It was huge, the fact that I went to Lincoln,” Greene said. “I played with a lot of great players at Lincoln.”

Greene played alongside top recruit and future NBA Draft Pick Lance Stephenson, which brought plenty of attention to the team. The Railsplitters played in front of many college and professional scouts, which led to Greene’s future recruitment. Flashes’ head coach Rob Senderoff was an assistant on the former Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson’s staff and was in New York recruiting Stephenson when he first saw Greene play.

“I had a great relationship with Jim Christian, who was the coach (at Kent State) at the time, and told Geno (Ford), who was an assistant here at the time, that there was a really good player that was getting under recruited out of New York, that he plays on a team full of Division-I players and that I thought he would be really good (at Kent State),” Senderoff said.

Six months later, Senderoff had returned to Kent State as an assistant and Greene was still unsigned. Senderoff had watched Greene’s Lincoln team defeat Brooklyn Boys and Girls High School and contacted Greene following the game.

“He was overlooked,” Senderoff said. “Not a lot of New York schools recruited him and we were able to get him to say he wanted to come here, which has been good for us.”

Greene took only one official visit to Kent State before signing with the Flashes. Kent State’s winning tradition and successful 2007-08 season, in which the Flashes finished with a 28-7 record and earned an NCAA Tournament bid, convinced him to sign with Kent State.

“That was huge to me because I was all about winning,” Greene said. “I didn’t care about who got the credit. I just wanted to win basketball games and continue the winning tradition that I had going on at my high school. When I saw (Kent State’s successful history), I was onboard.”

Greene saw limited playing time during his freshman season at Kent State but wasn’t discouraged by spending most of the games on the bench. Lessons and a hardworking mentality learned from his father helped Greene improve after his first year as a Flash.

“Once I really learned the game and used what my dad and high school coach told me, I think it helped me a lot when I came to college to help me be ready,” Greene said. “Everybody when they first come, it’s going to be a rough freshman year, especially at this level. Once I learned the system at Kent and I got some more playing time, I gained more confidence. And I think the little things that I learned from my dad and high school coach helped me to prepare for the college level.”

Greene performed well during Kent State’s summer trip to Italy and returned with the goal of earning a starting position. After a grueling preseason camp, Greene had accomplished his goal and was named the starting power forward for the 2009-10 season, in which he averaged 13.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and earned second-team All-MAC honors.

He continued to improve during his junior season at Kent State and increased his offensive production, averaging 15.4 points per game. Following the conclusion of the season, Greene was named an Associated Press honorable mention All-American, first-team All-MAC and MAC Player of the Year.

“Moving to New York really made me the man I am today because I had to do things on my own,” Greene said. “I had to work hard, I had to push myself and my dad was always there to help me and keep my mind straight and keep me focused on the goal which was to get a college scholarship, and everything ended up working out great.”

Greene is currently eighth on Kent State’s career scoring list with 1,360 points and hopes that his team will win another MAC East title and earn an NCAA Tournament appearance before his collegiate career comes to an end.

“He’s a self-made player,” Senderoff said. “The stuff that he has done to improve is all stuff that he deserves credit for. He works hard on his game, he plays with a lot of confidence and swagger, and he’s really become one of the best players to ever play at this school.”

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].