On Twitter: @justinpleslie
Justin Leslie is a lifetime Cougar. Granted his life is still relatively brief (he's only 34), but from his earliest memories, Leslie has been a part of Cougar basketball, attending games with his grandfather, participating in "Cliff Hamlow Basketball Camps," and signing to play with the Cougars when he was 17 years old.
The progression was natural that he would someday become the curator of Cougar basketball. Thus on April 12, 2007, Leslie was named the fifth head coach of Azusa Pacific men's basketball, replacing veteran mentor Bill Odell, who retired after 16 years at the Cougar helm. Leslie, who played five seasons for Odell and then served as his assistant for another five years, was well-prepared to take over one of the crown jewels of small-college basketball. He was well-versed in the history and tradition of Cougar basketball.
Other than Odell, no individual has played a more significant role in Azusa Pacific's emergence and continuing presence as a small-college power than Leslie. Of Azusa Pacific's 454 wins during Odell's 16-year tenure, Leslie was on hand as either a player or assistant coach for 302 of them.
Leslie is smart, articulate, passionate and appropriately confident. As a coach - and as a man - he is ahead of his years, so there was no hesitation to hand him control of the Cougar program well before his 30th birthday. He was more than ready.
In his first five seasons as a head coach on any level, Leslie has exceeded all expectations. Though he inherited a program with a fabulous tradition, his first Cougar team, nonetheless, featured 10 new players, and thus it was up to Leslie to fashion the unit into a cohesive team. He guided the Cougars through some expected early-season rough waters as the team discovered its identity. By midseason, the Cougars hit their stride and they closed the regular season by winning 11 of their final 13 games and carried the momentum into the postseason where for the fourth straight year they advanced to the "Elite Eight" of the NAIA Tournament. The Cougars finished the season at 24-11, and for his work Leslie was named the GSAC Coach of the Year.
In 2009, Leslie's Cougars went 24-10, and although his 2010 team was riddled with injuries, Leslie kept the unit together and focused in an impressive 28-10 campaign. By mid-February, when all wounds had healed, the Cougars took off, winning 11 of their final 12 games and advancing to the NAIA championship game for only the second time in program history. A year later, Leslie guided the Cougars to a 29-6 campaign with a nearly-perfect regular season. Azusa Pacific won 26 of 30 before postseason play, including a 17-3 conference record, and all four defeats came by a combined margin of just seven points.
In 2011-12, Leslie guided the Cougars to a 24-8 record despite having to break in a brand-new starting five, posting Azusa Pacific's 20th consecutive 20-win season. Seven different players averaged eight or more points per game for a balanced Cougar squad, including All-GSAC guards Brandon Dunson and Robert Sandoval.
As a player, the 6-foot-8 Leslie was a center for some of the finest teams in Azusa Pacific history, playing for the Cougars from 1996 to 2001. He is one of just five players in Golden State Athletic Conference history to play on four conference championship teams (the other four were also Cougars). In fact, he actually played on five GSAC title teams, briefly playing for the 2000 championship squad before being granted a medical hardship because of an injury.
During his 132-game Cougar career, Leslie averaged 8.6 points and 4.8 rebounds and in the process set the school season (88) and career (168) records for blocked shots. As a 2001 senior, he averaged 12.4 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds while leading Azusa Pacific to a program-best 35-3 record. He was a key reserve on the Cougars' 1998 squad that advanced to the NAIA semifinals and then started all 35 games in 1999 when Azusa Pacific returned to the semis. Statistically, his finest outing as a Cougar came in the aforementioned abbreviated 2000 campaign when he scored a career-high 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes of play against Cal Poly Pomona. However, he offered a more significant contribution during his 1999 junior season when he tallied 23 points, including 13 in the second half, to go along with three blocked shots, to lead Azusa Pacific from nine points down in the second half to a 69-61 victory over Biola and clinch the Cougars' seventh straight GSAC title. All told, Leslie was a key member of a Cougar program that went 127-22 (.852) during his playing career.
Leslie prepped at Perris (Calif.) High where he played three seasons for longtime head coach Elzie Landers. He was a two-time All-Sunbelt League and All-Riverside County selection. As a 1996 senior he also garnered All-Inland Empire recognition while leading the Panthers to a 24-5 record and the Sunbelt League title.
An outstanding student, Leslie graduated from Azusa Pacific magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in marketing in 2000. He then garnered an MBA from Azusa Pacific during his final season of play for the Cougars. He joined Odell's staff as an assistant coach for the 2001-02 season and then spent the next year working for David Taussig & Associates, Inc., a public finance consulting company based in Newport Beach. He returned to coaching and the Cougar staff in the fall of 2003.
Justin and his wife, Joy, also an Azusa Pacific alum, live in Glendora with their two daughters, Jill (10) and Jenna (7) and son, Jaren (3).