For Utah State’s Justin Bean, the hours leading up to the NCAA selection show Sunday and the Aggies’ March Madness fate felt something like Christmas Eve without a guaranteed visit by Santa Claus.
“You just didn’t know if you were going to have presents in the morning,” the junior forward said.
One year ago, USU knew its gift was coming. The Aggies automatically qualified by defeating San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference Tournament on Sam Merrill’s magical last-second shot, only to see the NCAA Tournament canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year the Aggies lost to the Aztecs in the conference tournament championship, leaving an at-large bid as their only hope for being invited to the Big Dance. Bean admitted to closely following all the bubble “last four in, last four out” discussions for personal motivation. He worried when Wichita State, a team projected lower that USU, was selected for one of the play-in games.
But when 11 seed Utah State appeared in a bracket matchup with 6 seed Texas Tech for a first-round game this Friday, Bean shared his emotional reaction on Twitter: “I could cry a whole bucket of happy tears rn.”
“To hear our name called and have that feeling of clarity and gratitude, and know all of our work had paid off, it was unbelievable,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Returning to the NCAA Tournament with Utah State is just the latest achievement in Bean’s interesting life journey. Raised in a family with a father who played college basketball, an injury in high school threatened to derail Bean’s hoops aspirations before he even started. Bean then served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before walking-on to the USU basketball team, where he set a goal to earn a scholarship. Over the last few years, Bean’s energetic and aggressive style of play has made him a fan favorite in Logan.
The 6-foot-7 Bean recently spoke about the highs and lows of his life road with the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament, along with other compelling aspects of his life, in an interview with the Deseret News.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Was there a player you tried to emulate or model your game after when growing up?
Justin Bean: Being from Oklahoma, I’ve always been a huge Sooners’ fan. I watched Blake Griffin all growing up. He was one of my favorite players to watch in college. Honestly, he was probably one that I emulated a lot growing up and throughout high school. I never got the chance to meet him, but his athleticism, his finishing around the rim, he was someone that I really look up to. Other than that, I followed Utah State basketball a little bit, Tai Wesley, Gary Wilkinson and some of those players. But the Sooners were the team I grew up watching.
DN: In almost every televised game, commentators mention that your father, Gordon Bean, played at Idaho State. What’s one thing you learned from your father that has helped you as a basketball player?
JB: A lot of things come to mind, but I think the one that stands out the most is to play on attack, to be aggressive. There have been times throughout my life, high school and college careers, where I wasn’t playing aggressive and on attack mode, and that was the first thing he would say to me after the game. I always look forward to those talks in the car ride, just him and me, where he would tell me things that I could work on. He was always super positive and encouraging. But the one thing that always rang true was just to play on attack mode and be aggressive, because even if you mess up, if you’re trying hard, then we can live with the results.
DN: The most significant injury of your career to this point was a torn ACL (knee) during your junior year of high school. How did that experience impact your life and what did you learn?
JB: It was devastating. I was being recruited and my stock was rising. Coaches were interested, and I had visits scheduled. After the injury, I still went on those visits but the interest wasn’t there. It was hard for me mentally.
But when the game was taken from me, I took a step back and had to look in the mirror and see if this is something that I wanted to do. Being able to make that decision and approach each day in physical therapy, rehab and training and say, “OK, today I’m going to get better because my ultimate goal is to play Division I basketball.” That mindset, not only did it not change, it got stronger. That injury definitely helped me to approach the game the same way I do now, and that’s to not take it for granted and play each game like it is your last. It was not easy but I definitely am grateful for it now.
Spiritually, it was big. I had never been through something like that, emotionally, mentally. I definitely had to just trust my Savior. I definitely grew closer to him throughout that process. I remember my Grandpa Bean read us the story of Elder Hugh B. Brown and his talk about “The Currant Bush.” That talk about trusting in the gardener and trusting in what Heavenly Father wanted me to be was really huge. I knew I had to leave it in his hands, trust that I was going to get better and things would look up because of my faith in Jesus Christ. That definitely is something that strengthened me.
DN: You served your mission in Reno, Nevada, from 2015-2017. What did that experience do for you as a person and a player?
JB: I would say as a person and as a player, my mission made me tough. I feel like I’ve always been a pretty hard-nosed kid. But I think emotionally it made me tough. It was a big step for me. There were a lot of growth zones — taking me out of my comfort zone — but I’m grateful for that because it taught me and showed me how to work hard and put me in situations where I wasn’t always comfortable, where the only thing I had to do was just work through it. That has definitely epitomized my college career.
DN: You have told the story of sitting down to sandwiches with former assistant coach and Aggies great Spencer Nelson and your mission president near the end of your mission. What do you remember most about that meeting and how it influenced your decision to come to Utah State?
JB: That was a big deal for me. Before my mission I met with the coaches at the University of Utah and agreed to walk on.
It was about a year into my mission when Spencer reached out to my dad and they talked about the possibility of Utah State. My mom had attended Utah State to get her associate degree and really loved it. Obviously, the basketball tradition was huge, and I loved that.
When we met, I was super nervous because in my mind, it was a like a job interview. I was there to take advantage of these 20 minutes and make a good impression, let him know that I really wanted to play at Utah State. On the flip side of that, Spencer was trying to sell the program to me. So there was a little bit of confusion. My mission president and I weren’t exactly sure what the meeting was for.
After the meeting, Spencer said I’d hear back from him in about a month, so I left that meeting still not sure what was going to happen. I said a lot of prayers and hoped things would work out. Sure enough, I got an email a month later telling me, “Congratulations,” they had given me the preferred walk-on spot. I was super grateful and haven’t looked back.
DN: Take people inside the life of a walk-on student athlete at Utah State. What was that like for you, and how did it feel when you received a scholarship?
JB: Being a walk-on at Utah State was very challenging. There were a lot of uncertainties, doubts and not knowing what was going to come. But my goal wasn’t just to attend Utah State, it was to be on the basketball team and get a scholarship. That was my mindset — to never be satisfied.
Thankfully, I had some good coaches that motivated and pushed me to be a better player. I shook off the rust from the mission, got back into shape and I was feeling good. Then the coaching staff changed completely so it felt like I was starting all over again.
(USU’s head coach Craig) Smith was honest and real with me. He told me that he thought that I could definitely get some minutes playing in his system. I believed him. So I worked even harder, and thankfully, earned a scholarship. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I’ll never forget calling my family. My mom was crying and it was very emotional for all of us. They believed in me when most coaches didn’t. They believed in me all the way and pushed me to be where I’m at. I couldn’t be more grateful for them and also coach Smith for giving me the opportunity.
DN: You have a YouTube channel with videos of you singing and playing the ukulele. Why the ukulele?
JB: I started playing the ukulele because of my second oldest brother, Tyler. He learned from a family in our ward back in Oklahoma.
I feel like I’m a good singer but I didn’t really have anything to play. I played the piano for a couple of years but would play basketball instead of practicing. I wanted to play something kind of quick and easy so I picked up the ukulele and literally watched YouTube videos from random people. I was kind of self-taught, never took lessons or anything. I started playing and after a couple of years, posting videos.
Our family is super musical, about everyone plays an instrument of some sort. We all love to sing. So it’s kind of a perfect match. Ask anyone on the team, I’m always humming in the locker room so it probably gets old for them, but I enjoy it.
DN: What was the hardest thing you experienced in 2020 and how did you come through it?
JB: Probably the most difficult part for me was just the uncertainty of the future. I’m someone who likes to plan ahead and know things in advance. So not knowing exactly what was gonna come with scheduling and basketball games, are we going to have a season? All of that accumulated to be really hard for me.
But I think coach Smith said it best. His quote has always been, “We’ve just got to control the controllables.” There’s nothing we can do about the things out of our control. We can’t control what the NCAA is going to say or do in regards to COVID-19. But he says we can control two things — our effort and our attitude. Those things have never changed. Thankfully, he’s instilled that in me to where I don’t have to wonder what’s going to come next. As long as I’m working hard and being positive, things are gonna work out.