Family is forever: Justine Pissott’s journey

Justine Pissott was a one-woman show on the court, but off the court she learned that nothing is more important than the people around her.
Justine Pissott goes in for a rebound, as photographed on Jan. 7, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin)
Justine Pissott goes in for a rebound, as photographed on Jan. 7, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin)
Vince Lin

Justine Pissott had no interest in being a Commodore when she left high school. The 6’4” five-star forward out of Toms River, N.J. barely looked at Vanderbilt during her recruiting process before ultimately committing to the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

One year later, Pissott entered the transfer portal but once again neglected to give Vanderbilt a look. At least, it seemed that way initially. There was a strong connection from the inside of the Memorial walls, though. Kevin DeMille, an assistant under Shea Ralph and the recruiting coordinator for the Vanderbilt Commodores, had recruited Pissott since she was 13 years old. DeMille took a shot in the dark to land the rising sophomore.

Justine Pissott bypasses opponent blocking, as photographed on Dec. 3, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto) (Barrie Barto)

“[DeMille] had called my dad,” Pissott said to The Hustler. “[He] was like ‘Hey, can you just give us a chance. Hear what we have to say.’ [My dad] was just like ‘Do it for me! Do it for me! Do it for Kevin!”

Pissott reluctantly agreed. She’d give the Commodores a look, for her dad and DeMille. DeMille set up a quick Zoom call between the Vanderbilt staff and the Pissott family, and within ten minutes, Pissott knew that Vanderbilt would be her next home. She was so sure of herself that she committed to the Commodores while in Nashville on her visit. 

Pissott shared the exact moment she made up her mind.

“I had told [the coaching staff] that I wanted to wear the uniform for the photo shoot,” Pissott said. “They were like ‘do you know what that means?’”

Wearing the uniform for the photoshoot meant that Pissott would officially commit to Vanderbilt. When she arrived, she had some big goals in mind; she wanted to put Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball back on the map.

Of course, the only downside for Pissott was the distance away from her family. There are about 800 miles between Nashville and Toms River, a distance that seemed impossibly far considering the connection between Pissott and the rest of her family.

“There wasn’t a night where we didn’t have dinner together at the table,” Pissott said about her family growing up. “If I were to come home late from basketball and everyone else had already eaten, the other four people would still come to the table.”

At the helm of the family was her father, Jim Pissott, who introduced Justine to basketball and drove her to every game and practice, even if they were hours away. With his military background, Jim led a strict, goal-oriented household, but one that was filled with love nonetheless.

“My dad used to say leaving the house ‘family is forever and I love you’ every single day up until college,” Pissott said.

The rest of the Pissott family consists of mother Josephine, younger brother Robbie and twin sister Gia. Gia is a sophomore at the Naval Academy who, like her sister, suits up for their basketball team. Yet, where Justine was a shoe in to play on a college roster, Gia’s hopes of playing basketball were hazy. Gia suffered a lot of medical problems in her youth, including an eight-month concussion that threatened her possibility of playing basketball at a collegiate level. Gia would continue to play basketball in high school after a short time away, but ended up switching her focus to golf, finding incredible success and receiving college offers. Once COVID-19 struck, Gia couldn’t golf anymore, derailing her development because there were no golf courses around. 

Justine credits a lot of her personal strength and growth to Gia. Being with Gia for every step of her journey and watching her suffer many let downs without giving up inspired Justine to continue to grow in the face of adversity. Thus, when Gia’s golf career was put on pause, Justine was right there with a basketball in hand. The two would play basketball every day, whether it be training with drills or competing in one-on-ones, and the two made each other better. Now, even hundreds of miles away, the two continue to inspire each other every day.

“I don’t know how [Gia] does it,” Pissott said. “She has to wake up at 4 a.m. and get right to work…. She’s willing to do anything to be successful.”

Then, there’s Pissott’s mom, Josephine. Like the rest of the family, Josephine was an elite athlete who ran marathons in her free time. But, when Justine was very young, Josephine was hit by a car during one of her runs. The accident caused Josephine to undergo brain surgery, having to learn how to walk and perform other actions all over again. This caused her to miss a significant amount of Justine’s childhood.

Josephine was a school teacher, which naturally meant she had a gift for helping others. She always chose the road of selflessness when given the opportunity, which added an additional struggle to her recovery. 

“She wasn’t there 100% physically and I think that it killed her inside,” Pissott said. “Just knowing that my dad was always around and she couldn’t really be there.”

With her mom, Justine was forced to watch from the sidelines just like she had with Gia, doing her best to support her mother despite just being a kid. Josephine, of course, continued to be a symbol of strength, recovering from her injury and putting her full focus once again on her family. But that reality only lasted a short time.

Justine Pissott drives towards the basket, as photographed on Jan. 7, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin) (Vince Lin)

Later in middle school, Pissott was at basketball practice when she received a call from her father. Jim had always been the one to drive Pissott around from sport to sport and had developed a strong relationship with his daughter through these car rides. Tonight, though, he wasn’t available to pick her up. He informed Pissott that her mom had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and that he was with her at the hospital. She rushed over to the hospital, begging her coaches to drive her over, and upon arrival stared dead at her mother in the hospital bed. Josephine, in yet another vulnerable position, decided to put others ahead of herself. In a moment where most would be focused on the devastating news, she instead called for the nurses to get her daughter ice cream in hopes it would help young Justine.

That was one of the only memories Pissott had from her mother’s battle with cancer. Jim had tried his best to shield his children away from yet another familial heartbreak, once again taking on the responsibilities of both parents while supporting his wife during her treatments. Justine, once again, could only watch, focusing on basketball despite the adversity. 

Pissott is now a consistent starter on a March Madness team, averaging over 20 minutes a game and shooting over 38% from the 3-point line. She has remained strong and continues to work hard while also providing support for her family whenever necessary. 

“I think going through struggles in life makes you stronger,” Pissott said. “If you have your family with you and you have people with you, I don’t think you can’t go wrong in any situation. No matter what the outcome is.”

Even though her family is over 800 miles away, Pissott found a family here in Nashville. After a less-than-ideal freshman season, experiencing personal issues and struggles both on the court and off the court, Pissott had lost the confidence that defined her game growing up.

Justine Pissott launches the ball from the 3-point line as a defender reaches to block, as captured on March 3, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Savannah Walske) (Savannah Walske)

“My biggest fears are messing up and disappointing my family,” Pissott said about her start to the season. “Every time I stepped on the court this year, I told myself I didn’t want to mess up and I would end up either messing up or not performing how I needed to perform.”

But with those early-season woes, the Vanderbilt family continued to welcome her with open arms and she, in turn, embraced the Vanderbilt family back. Towards the tail end of the season, Pissott caught fire, including back-to-back 12-point games to end the season, going 8-13 from behind the arc (61.5%). 

“I’ve just learned to be myself and let go,” Pissott said. “Knowing that I have a group of staff members who genuinely love me, genuinely care for me and want to see me be who I want to be keeps me going.”

While the Commodores will be dancing in March, putting Pissott in a spotlight position for the first time at the collegiate level, she also has an important offseason ahead. With the departure of major contributor Jordyn Cambridge next season, there’s a gap in production that the Commodores need to fill, a role that Pissott intends to embrace. With her continuous commitment to Vanderbilt, Pissott is excited to embrace the support from her coaches and staff as she develops into the player that the Commodores need and the player that she wants to become.

“I’m really excited for this offseason,” Pissott said. “It’s going to turn a new leaf for me and for this program. I think I’ve become stronger and more determined to get what I want.”

With maturity beyond her years and a mental toughness that other athletes only dream of, Pissott has all the tools in the world to grow into a star. She still has two seasons left and a dream of turning professional, meaning she’s only just begun her journey. With the love from her family in Toms River and that of the newly developed family here at Vanderbilt, Pissott will continue to thrive off the support of her peers. 

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About the Contributors
Connor Campbell
Connor Campbell, Senior Staff Writer
Connor Campbell ('25) is a human and organizational development and cinema and media arts major from Staten Island, N.Y. Connor shares a strong love for both sports and film, leading to his interest in "The Ringer" and, consequently, his casual and quippy style of writing. Outside of The Hustler, Connor does freelance photography, runs the social media accounts for Vanderbilt Club Hockey and is the president of Vanderbilt Tap That. You can reach him at [email protected].
Savannah Walske
Savannah Walske, Staff Photographer
Savannah Walske (‘26) is from San Francisco and is double majoring in psychology and Spanish in the College of Arts and Science. When not shooting for The Hustler, you can find her playing guitar, photographing pretty Californian landscapes and obsessing over her dog. You can contact her at [email protected].
Vince Lin
Vince Lin, Deputy Videography Editor
Vince Lin (‘27) is from Zanesville, Ohio, and is majoring in computer science. Vince also serves as a graphics and photography staffer. Outside of school, you can find him at the gym, rowing, lifting weights, playing games with friends or sleeping. You can reach him at [email protected].
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Felix Velez
2 months ago

Strength And Blessings in the Journey!!!…

Carolyn Gray
2 months ago

My husband & I are so proud of our niece Justine Pissott & her twin sister, Gia Pissott! Both girls are determined to get the job done.
Congratulations to Vanderbilt Commodore’s! Keep it going!!

The Pissott family is very close! Paul & I enjoy any time we can get with them!!