Special to espnW
Joe Camporeale for ESPN
Justice Ethridge leaned back in her aunt’s recliner, covered herself in blankets, curled her body into the most comfortable position possible and, after an 18-hour day, fell asleep.
For about a year during her high school career, that was her bedtime ritual.
Even now, the senior basketball star at Centennial (Las Vegas) doesn’t have her own room or a bed. She lives with her grandfather, her younger brother and her mother in a one-bedroom Las Vegas apartment. She sleeps on a couch.
Her parents — Johnny Ethridge and Theresa Hinton — divorced when she was 10. Justice, the third of four children, stayed with her father and younger brother for a couple of years because he lived closer to her school. But when hard times hit, they moved in with his parents.
Halfway through middle school, she went to live with her mother, and they have been together ever since, moving about once a year in an effort to find something affordable.
For now, that is with her grandfather. Previously, it was with other family members. "That recliner was pretty comfortable," Ethridge says.
So, too, was being surrounded by her family in loving — albeit sometimes tight — quarters.
"At the end of the day, she was still surrounded by family," former teammate Megan Jefferson said. "She had people who loved and supported her. She saw different perspectives from different parts of her family."
A 5-foot-9 senior shooting guard, Ethridge is the No. 91 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2018 class. Last month, she capped her high school career with a fourth consecutive state title and a 122-8 record. She was a four-year starter, a three-time all-state player and the Nevada state finals MVP as a freshman.
In November, she decided to stay in her city — against her mother’s wishes — and signed with UNLV.
"I’m glad she’s going to be the hometown hero at UNLV, and I’m excited to be able to see her play at a [collegiate] level," Hinton said. "But I’m worried that being home might be a distraction for her.
"I told her to go. I wanted her to be selfish. I wanted her to be away so that she didn’t feel the burden of family and who was sick or in the hospital."
Strong and silent
Centennial coach Karen Weitz recalls first watching Ethridge play when her senior star was in middle school.
Weitz tracked her off and on for nearly two years and was impressed with Ethridge’s game. But the coach noticed something else.
"I never heard her speak," Weitz said. "You could tell she was going to be a special player, but she was socially awkward."
Courtesy Spencer Burton
Ethridge was near the end of her seventh-grade year when her AAU team, the Las Vegas Bulldogs, invited her to a tournament in Utah.
Ethridge refused. She locked herself in the bathroom and cried.
But Hinton insisted.
"Justice was petrified," Weitz said. "It was her first time away from home, but she had a great time."
From then on, Ethridge was hooked on travel basketball, visiting 10 states over the past several years. She told her family she could do without new shoes and other things … but not without the money to send her to those tournaments.
With the additional experience and practice, Ethridge became a knock-down perimeter shooter. She’s not flashy. Family members call her "Just Enough Justice."
Winning was all that mattered, and Ethridge finished her career with 57 consecutive victories against Nevada opponents.
As a junior, she broke the Nevada state-title game record with six first-half 3-pointers. As a senior, she led Centennial to a 74-65 overtime win over Liberty (Henderson, Nevada) in the state final in Reno. Centennial trailed by 15 points after three quarters, but Ethridge responded with 14 points in the fourth, including a crucial 3-pointer with 23 seconds left. She finished with 24 points and was able to get to the foul line repeatedly, making 7 of 8 free throws during the comeback.
"You don’t realize right away how fast and athletic she is because she’s so smooth," Weitz said. "There have been games when I yell at her to do more and my assistant coach will nudge me and say, ‘She’s our leading scorer.’ "
Although Ethridge is quiet, she said one rather meaningful thing upon arriving at Centennial as a freshman.
"The first thing she said was, ‘I’m going to win four state titles,’ " Weitz said. "I believed her. I knew her ability. I knew she could affect the game in ways that other kids can’t. And I always tried to hold her to her word."
The next challenge
Joe Camporeale for ESPN
Ethridge, who will graduate this spring with a 3.8 GPA, is such a serious student that many teachers, Weitz said, had no idea she played basketball.
She is interested in studying business, marketing and/or management, and her mother said Ethridge has been shaped by her parents’ financial difficulties.
"She’s a penny-pincher," Hinton said. "She has the ability to save money and look at things from a value perspective.
"I’ve never had to worry about her grades. She’s never missed school or practice, even when she’s been sick. She will do the right thing. She is every part of her name (Justice). She is by the book."
Sometimes, though, she needs a nudge.
Recruit embraces call to travel (and serve)
That was the case last July when Ethridge settled on UNLV. Picking the Rebels wasn’t nearly as hard as calling the other coaches who recruited her to break the bad news.
In fact, it took a couple of weeks to call the coaches at San Francisco, Hawaii and others.
"I spaced it out between each one," she said. I couldn’t do it all back-to-back. I don’t like awkward conversations."
UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said on her school’s website that Ethridge is "a total winner" and "not just a good 3-point shooter but a great 3-point shooter."
Weitz said UNLV is fortunate to get a player such as Ethridge, an accurate shooter with enough talent to play at a "high major" university.
"[Olivier] told me Justice may have to sit some as a freshman," Weitz said. "I laughed when she said that. I told Kathy, ‘She is not going to sit on your bench.’ She will outwork people."
Ethridge said she "can’t wait" to get to the UNLV campus in July.
After all, for much of the past two years, she’s woken up at 4 a.m. every weekday, driven her mother to work (she helps prepare meals in the doctors’ dining room at a hospital and also works at numerous trade shows and conventions that come to Las Vegas), and then spent a full day at school with weightlifting and basketball practice mixed in, stealing whatever time she could to finish homework.
At night, she would pick her mother up from work before finally arriving home at about 9 p.m. (Before being able to drive, she took the city bus, which made for even longer days.)
And once she got home, she was surrounded by loving family members, but it hasn’t exactly been a white picket fence.
"I’m looking forward, a lot, to having my own spot away from everybody and just being able to walk to class and practice," Ethridge said.
"Plus, I can’t imagine being in a city that closes down at 9 p.m. I love Las Vegas. There’s no other city like this."