By Cam Huffman
Jim Justice has never been one to settle for mediocrity.
When he brought a PGA TOUR golf tournament to West Virginia, something most said could never be done, he wasn’t satisfied with it being just another tournament on the schedule. Now, after only three years, the Greenbrier Classic is considered one of the best events on the TOUR.
When Justice took over the Greenbrier East girls’ basketball team 13 years ago, he quickly made it a competitor and turned watching the Lady Spartans play into a must-see event in Greenbrier County. But Justice wanted to be the best, and last March the East girls’ hoisted a Class AAA state championship trophy into the air after downing Bridgeport in the championship game.
Last year, Justice took on the monumental task of coaching both of the varsity basketball teams at Greenbrier East — girls and boys — and he led the boys to their second winning season in the last 10 years, as the Spartans finished 13-12.
“It wasn’t easy, but we got there,” said Justice, who has coached basketball at the semi-pro, high school and middle school level but never had a losing season. “We made it to the Sweet 16 with a shot to go to the state tournament. It took a while for the team to get to know me. It’s a process, but it was a good season.”
Now in year No. 2, the coach — and owner of The Greenbrier resort — is looking for more.
“I take my job very seriously,” said Justice. “It’s not coming out here and Jimmy having a good time. If I felt like I couldn’t do a great job with both these teams, I wouldn’t do it.
“What I want us to be able to do is to be able to compete with the traditional teams that we know are tough. Beckley will be tough. Princeton will be tough. Oak Hill, Shady, Riverside, they’re all tough. And we haven’t been able to compete. If we were able to compete and contend to go to the state tournament, and maybe even advance, that’s an accomplishment.”
Justice believes he has the team this year to make that trip to Charleston — Greenbrier East hasn’t been since 2002, and it was 1985 before that — and he’s not afraid of setting that goal.
“We’ve done a lot of fine-tuning and put in a lot of stuff,” he explained. “We had no rhythm early on, but we’ve really started cooking. They’re going to be an exciting team to watch. They’ve bought in, and we’re on the way.”
Obi Romeo, a 6-foot-10 center, has continued to develop his game, and Justice said he’s starting to “play like a man.” With his size and athleticism, he’s beginning to draw some college interest.
“There’s a lot of schools that are going to be interested in Obi,” said the Spartan coach. “Can he get interest at the D-I level? He’s going to have to improve. A 6-10 D-I player today is the real deal. Obi is getting there, but he’s still got improvement to make.”
Dereck Weiford is back from last year, after playing major minutes in a reserve role, and will likely move into the starting lineup, along with Owen Browning, an undersized 2-guard with a solid outside shot.
There are also a couple new faces. Rondale Watson, a Class AA all-state selection at Oak Hill last year, is now with the Spartans, as is Bryce Woodliff, a senior who moved to Greenbrier County from the Roanoke, Va., area and will handle the point.
Depth isn’t a concern at all, with players like Trey Cochran, Evan Ramsey, Ryan Linsey and Tyler Canterbury sure to see major minutes off the bench.
Justice’s biggest concern, in fact, might be finding enough minutes to go around.
“When you have this many kids that can play, they all want to play,” he said.
With Romeo drawing plenty of attention in the paint, Justice hopes to take advantage of the defense with some solid outside shooters.
“I’m a real believer in shooting the 3,” he said. “I honestly believe that a third of your shots need to be 3-point attempts. But, of course, we have to get Obi a lot of touches.”
The real strength, according to Justice, will be his team’s ability to adapt to what it sees from its opponent.
“These kids know a lot,” he said. “We’ll change based on what the defense throws at us.”
Greenbrier East will open the season on Dec. 4 at home against Fayetteville, the start of what Justice believes could be a memorable season in Fairlea.
“I’m not going to tell you that it’s not a lot of work, but I love it,” said Justice of his busy job of coaching both teams, while also managing all of his business interests, including The Greenbrier and The Greenbrier Classic. “I love the game, and I love the kids.
“I want to try to give back as much as I possibly can, even if it hurts. And this hurts. My knees aren’t great, and everything else, and it’s hard every day to do it and do it right. But I’m not going to do it any other way.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.