While Justin Hemsley grew up following a map to success, his plans didn’t turn out the way he expected, but perhaps for all the better. 

Justin Hemsley has proven to be a vital member of Azusa Pacific University’s men’s basketball team as he plays for the Cougars while getting his Master’s in Leadership. In his two seasons here at APU, he has routinely led the team in points, accomplishing a career-high of 29 points against Fresno Pacific this season. Though Hemsley fits in perfectly as a Cougar, his road to APU was unconventional and came out of initial disappointments. 

Hemsley’s pathway to APU began at a young age. As a child, he followed in his older brother’s footsteps, Jeremy Hemsley, who fell in love with the sport by age two. As young boys, Justin and Jeremy would sleep beside their basketballs. In high school, they would get up early with their father before school to train. 

Jeremy (left) & Justin (right)

Supporting their dreams of playing college and professional basketball was a part of their father’s plans to get them to the level they desired. 

Despite all of his efforts, Hemsley had trouble getting recruited out of high school. To add to the pressure, being on a team of high-profile athletes made Hemsley compare himself, especially to his older brother Jeremy. 

“I felt like I had to do all the same things that he’s [Jeremy’s] doing on the court. And if I’m not then I’m a failure because he just made it look so easy,” Hemsley said. 

Even during games, Hemsley would look out at the sold-out crowd and feel insecure about what people thought of him compared to his brother. 

Justin felt that people saw him as only Jeremy’s little brother. Sharing a love of basketball with his brother was exciting, but comparing himself to Jeremy was something he struggled with, especially in high school.  

Although Jeremy encouraged Justin to focus on living out his own basketball journey, it was hard not to feel discouraged by all of the schools that had recruited Jeremy. Justin said he had only one division one offer. 

Justin (left) & Jeremy (right)

This offer took Hemsley to Hawaii. While Hemsley enjoys a successful basketball career here, Hawaii gave him something (or someone) that was priceless. As a freshman in college, Justin met his now fiancé, Brooklyn, a model and California native. 

“It was literally love at first sight. My heart just told me and I knew. I knew who she was and the role that she would end up playing in my life whether she knew it or not at the time,” Hemsley said. 

The two clicked right away and after 23 days, they started dating. Fast forward to December 2021, Hemsley started planning for the proposal which took place while vacationing with her family in Cancun in July. 

Justin and his fiancé Brooklyn

For Hemsley, Brooklyn is a reminder of God’s larger plan. Though Hawaii felt like a forced destiny, Hemsley is thankful that God led him there. 

Similarly, Hemsley’s plans were redirected when he was looking to transfer to another division one school. 

When he initially went into the transfer portal, APU was not on his list. “My main goal was to stay in division one because I had my own aspirations of wanting to play in the March Madness Tournament.” Since Hemsley’s brother and several of his friends played in March Madness and went on to play professionally, he too wanted a taste of this experience. 

Nonetheless, APU persisted in recruiting Hemsley, contacting him on three occasions before he showed any returned interest. Hearing little from any division one team, Hemsley realized that going to a division two school in California might be his best bet. 

Still, Hemsley continued to look outside of APU. He was set on one California university, but they did not have a master’s program that he was interested in. As fate would have it, the basketball coach for this school brought up APU, telling Hemsley he would be a good fit there if he would look into it. 

Coming from a program where Hemsley didn’t feel as valued, he immediately appreciated how he felt seen by APU’s coaches. “They liked me on the court, but they were more liking of my character, as a person, and the presence that I offered to the team,” Hemsley said. This, along with the rich winning history of APU’s men’s basketball team, swayed Hemsley to come to a division two school.

Though Hemsley was sure he made the right decision, the transition was not without its hurdles. “I was able to see through it and manage it, but it wasn’t easy at all,” he said. 

For starters, having underestimated how seriously APU took academics, the master’s program proved to be more academically rigorous than what he had been used to. He also struggled with being a commuter student and with losing the perks that came with division one funding towards the athletic experience. 

“The adjustment was a big one ’cause I established a whole life in Hawaii, a home there for four years. So, it was an adjustment, but that’s what life is,” Hemsley said. 

Things improved this semester since Hemsley moved to University Village (UV) on APU’s campus. He has also developed close relationships with his teammates. 

Hemsley expressed that he’s never been on a team like this and believes he has his coaches to thank for this because they recruit athletes who help to create an environment that demands high character. 

“It would feel weird to be the guy that’s mad about something. Or even with myself there would be times last year that I would kind of lose myself emotionally, but there’s always going to be a guy or two that’s going to put their arm around you and be like ‘Hey man, it’s ok. We got you,’” Hemsley said. 

After the men’s team finished on a disappointing note last season, Hemsley wants to win a championship and be the best team in the conference. He feels this season’s team is especially packed with talent, and individually, each player is ready to have a breakout moment. 

Moving past his final season, Hemsley is not quite sure what life will hold after college basketball. When asked if he would ever pursue a professional basketball career, he said he is leaving it up to God. “If it happens then praise God, but I think my mind has developed in a sense where I understand that life isn’t a sport. Before I only found my identity through basketball and that’s how I determined my own self-worth,” he said. 

While some things will stay the same for Hemsley, such as his love of God and family and his distaste for dill pickles and wet socks, much is about to change. He knows basketball will have to end someday, but he’s willing to continue pursuing it, he says, if that’s where God can best use him. Above all else, he wants to be a vessel that God uses to leave an impression on people’s lives. 

No matter where Hemsley’s map continues to take him, it is undeniable the success he reached in high school and college. Out of all of his accomplishments, however, he is most proud of how he handled adversity. No matter how difficult his situation was, he continued to put one foot in front of the other, running straight ahead through every obstacle, just as his father taught him.