When Harvard basketball catalyst Justice Ajogbor was 9 years old, his mother died of a stroke, and his father died one month later.
Ajogbor, the youngest of six children in Benin City, Nigeria, never learned his father’s cause of death because his siblings chose to protect him.
“He just couldn’t handle the heartbreak,” Ajogbor said of his father.
His mother was in her 40s and his father in his 60s, so Ajogbor viewed them as both nurturing parents and grandparents. Some of his siblings were much older, and he credits them for serving as de facto parents and showing him the way.
Ajogbor, now a 6-foot-10-inch junior who has started all five games for the 4-1 Crimson, was generally shy and private growing up.
He dreamed of one day graduating high school and college — and making a name for himself and his family — yet he had no clue how to get there. He didn’t know much about basketball, but in middle school, he realized it might be his best avenue toward accomplishing his goals.
Ajogbor moved to Asheville, N.C., to live with Gina and Greg Bridgeford in 2016 and blossomed into a star for Christ School. He became the highest-rated prospect ever to commit to Harvard, and it’s very clear three years in that it’s a perfect fit.
“He’s had a purpose about him for a long time,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “He’s had the opportunity to come to the United States, work, play basketball, go to Harvard. What a kid, what a story.”
When he was younger, Ajogbor struggled to express himself. He felt lost at times and wondered where life would take him.
He discovered basketball and realized it was what he had been missing. Basketball brought out the true Justice Ajogbor — the version he knew was in there somewhere but couldn’t unlock.
“That pretty much drove me to where I am today,” Ajogbor said. “Basketball is something I find fun. It helps me almost find myself every time I’m a little uncertain or things are going wrong in my life. As soon as I step on the court, it’s almost as if you find who you are.”
His potential was clear, but he understood he had a long way to go to. He dedicated himself and decided to take a leap of faith and move to North Carolina.
Ajogbor was puzzled when the Bridgefords expressed interest in welcoming him into their family. He said it was certainly not because of his basketball abilities at the time, and he’s forever grateful that they took a chance on him. They view him as their son, and he views them as his parents.
“As soon as I met them and got to know them, I knew they were the people who could fill the vacuum my parents’ passing had left,” Ajogbor said.
Ajogbor recently got to introduce his newest family to his North Carolina family when Harvard played in the Asheville Championship.
The Bridgefords hosted everyone for dinner, and the Crimson experienced bluegrass music, the mountains, and the atmosphere of the local scene.
Ajogbor, who is averaging 3 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks this season, has loved his time at Harvard. He has plugged into the Nigerian community on campus, and he cherishes every chance he gets to savor the food, culture, and pride associated with the country.
He said he doesn’t feel like a stranger at Harvard. He feels like he belongs and is doing something he loves with people he admires.
Ajogbor hasn’t had the chance to make it back to Nigeria since 2019, but he’s in touch with family members regularly. Games are often on too late for them to watch, but they “pretty much stalk” the Harvard basketball Instagram page and text him with pride whenever he appears.
While he keeps his roots and upbringing in mind daily, he’s incredibly thankful that his family has expanded exponentially in the United States.
“He’s a beautiful kid,” Amaker said. “He deserves it. I’m really proud to see him here at Harvard and blossoming.”
Fun days at the Beach
UMass outlasted Colorado (66-63), Murray State (71-69), and Charlotte (60-54) to capture the Myrtle Beach Invitational title. Against Murray State, Mattapoisett’s Noah Fernandes hit a winning 3-pointer with less than a second left for the 4-1 Minutemen. “For us to come here and beat these three teams, three really good teams, says a lot about our kids,” UMass coach Frank Martin said … Stonehill outlasted Holy Cross, 81-79, Saturday in the first meeting between the schools in nearly 50 years. Josh Mack delivered the winning shot with two seconds left, and Isaiah Burnett scored 30 points … UMass Lowell is off to a 4-1 start for the second straight season.
Trevor Hass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.