By Butch Antolini
When you pack 2,000 people into a West Virginia gymnasium for a high school basketball game on a Tuesday night in January, you know something special is going on.
When you have two varsity high school basketball programs —girls and boys — at one school that compete in the state's “big schools” division, and one is unbeaten and ranked No.1 and the other is unbeaten and ranked No. 4, you know something special is going on.
When the same guy is coaching both of those teams, you definitely know something special is going on.
Whether the Greenbrier East girls repeat as state basketball champions in 2013 or not, and whether the boys program continues to try and make history like the squads of 1986 and 1972, remains to be seen between now and March.
What's clearly evident, though, is the excitement surrounding the Spartans basketball programs.
And at the center of it, Jim Justice.
Yep, the owner of agricultural operations, coal mines, and yes, The Greenbrier resort is definitely up to his waist, or higher in it, and that's saying something for a guy who goes every bit of 6-7.
Well it's quite obvious that the challenge of molding young kids as athletes and responsible citizens is something that energizes the 61-year-old like nothing else.
For those who've watched Justice over the years, and especially since he purchased America's Resort nearly four years ago now, he comes off as passionate about what he's doing.
But watching him coach takes it all to another level.
“I'm not going to say this is easy,” Justice said after his boys' team extended its season record to 10-0 following a Tuesday victory over Logan. “You've got to be committed to what your doing and you've got to have a lot of passion and love for kids. It's surely a labor of love. I love the game and I love the kids.
“I'm really big into trying to teach these young men and young women to be first and foremost good citizens, good academically,” he went on. “I'm very comfortable in my skin as far as X's and O's. I've coached a thousand games. I've done it forever. I've done it since my late 20s. I've coached at every level. I coached a semi-pro- team. I've coached boys and girl's high school; little ones, everything … and I do love it.
“I love the game because it is so much like life itself. It will take you to the highest highs and the lowest lows. The great thing is that if you hang in there it will cycle back through quickly.
“I think that's kind of what we do in life. You know we go through the peaks and valleys and we just hang tough and believe that the good Lord is going to take care of us and just get through it.”
To say Justice is competitive would be putting it far too lightly, but when asked about the motivation he was quick to speak.
“I really believe that all of us are here for a reason. The good Lord has blessed me with the ability to do a few things and I think I can make a deal, shoot a shotgun and coach a basketball team. I know I can do those things.
“And I think that we are here to give back. I don’t have one interest on the planet to pile up a big pile of gold and just keep it to my self,” Justice added. “I have all the interest in trying to create jobs in the community and to give back.”
Obviously, the community’s youth is a path Justice has chosen to help him accomplish that goal of giving, and he makes no bones about what he’s trying to do.
“Our boys team here was struggling a little bit and I thought I could do this. It’s just another challenge and I thought I could do it.”
So how long does the ride of the 2012-13 season go for Greenbrier East?
Justice said he's not sure but he knows the players and fan base are committed.
“You can’t go undefeated if you don’t win the 10th game, that’s for sure,” he said. “But both teams are special. The girls team this year — I don’t know that they deserve to be No. 1, but from their effort they absolutely deserve it.”
When quickly reminded that he lost some great players from the 2012 title team, he acknowledged that but fiercely defended this year’s squad.
“Absolutely great players we lost. When you lose a 6-6 post player and your point guard, who’s a (potential) D-I point guard, you’ve got to do some backing up.
“But our kids have dug in and these girls have played like champions. They’re on a little vendetta. They don’t want to go out lightly. So they’ve worked really hard.
“I told them we had to change everything and we’ve changed offenses, defenses, everything because they are a lot different team. But they’ve become the roughest team in the state. They had to become a team that rebounded the ball phenomenally; win all the 50-50 balls and they’ve really got after it. They are in incredible physical condition. We run a lot of stuff. They are great shooters and we’ll be fine. If we can get the ball in our hands in the frontcourt we are in great shape. Our weaknesses are we don’t have any size and we just had to work at being rough.”
Although close to 10 p.m., you could literally see the fire in his eyes as he continued.
“We’ve got great fans, a great community. They are there over and over and over. It’s just really ... this community loves a winner. They’ve gone through a few teams that haven’t done real great but they like what we’re doing, that’s for sure. We’ve got a terrific, terrific principal, great superintendent. It’s a wonderful community and we’ve got a real buzz going on right now.
“And that helps in a lot of ways. When your teams are doing well it helps and it reflects academically. With all the excitement ... it’s just good.”
Now in his second year at the helm of both varsity basketball programs, what are his coaching plans in the future?
“As long as the good Lord just gives me the health to do it. You know a lot of people say why don’t you retire, why don’t you just take your money and retire and enjoy yourself … they say that all the time.
“I tell them this story, I really do. In the movie Roots, Kunta Kinte didn’t have much of a shot in life. I believe I’m put here for a reason. The good Lord gave me the brain and the creativity to create jobs and take risks and do things. And do good things with kids and connect with them, teach them values and everything.
“I’m a real believer. If you come to my practices and you walk in the door … every day I walk in the door every one of those young men walk in and shake my hand every day, every single day. And they know what I will put up with and what I won’t put up with.
“You don’t hear any swearing and cussing going on from them or me. They know when I’m deathly serious.”
But Justice is realistic when he talks about how to teach respect and discipline these days.
“Kids are just kids. It was the same way when we were kids. If you give us a crack in the door you know we’re running through a tunnel.
“Look, I make our kids wear white socks and I make our uniforms look like the same thing. I don’t let them wear their pants down their butt or do things that I think is unbecoming of them because I’m a believer in that you’ve got to look the part before you can be the part.
“Tonight (Tuesday), we were walking out of the dressing room and Bryce Woodliff, he’s our point guard, he had on socks that were white and they had green and gold up the back. And I said '’You’re going back to the dressing room big boy’ and he said ‘Why’' and I said we don’t do that. Not everybody else on our team has those socks and maybe somebody else couldn’t afford those socks.
“It’s all about being disciplined.”
Does it resonate and remain with the kids he coaches as they grow older? Justice says he hears from many of them all the time.
“You just can’t imagine ... really, just the day before yesterday there was a young lady that played for me in the past. She was at my house and she was having this really bad pain in her side, really worried, really worried as any of us would be. Getting ready to have a colonoscopy. And praise the Lord, everything came out good ... but I just knew she was needing that reassuring.
“I was out on a timber job with Cathy (his wife), maybe in September and my cell phone rings and this was a kid that played for me maybe four or five years ago and she said ‘Hey coach, I just wanted you to know that I just got engaged.’ And then she said ‘I called my Dad first, but you were the second person I called.’ That’s the best. That’s really the best.”
And Justice says any youngster that wants to be involved has the opportunity with him.
“I work really, really hard not to make this a great experience for just the five superstars. I want to make it a great experience, the best I possibly can for every kid on the JV, for the 12th man on our varsity basketball team…the same for the girls.
“You know we’ve never cut anybody since I’ve been here. We had 42 kids come out for the boys team. Now some of them drift away themselves because they see that it’s really not for them. But we’ve had at times like four teams ... you’ll have a JV team, a 9th grade team, then maybe just a team that comes in and practices every now and then. But yet they’ve all got their travel suits and they’re all on the bus with us and they're a part of what we’re doing. It’s really, really important to me to be something more to them than just teaching them how to dribble a basketball.”
Sharing life lessons with youngsters surely seems to be in his heart of hearts, and coaching obviously energizes him beyond whatever takes place in his many business ventures. No doubt he really knows the game — how to get the very best out of his kids — maybe our state’s very best coach.
So just call him coach; it’s fitting and likely the best compliment anyone can pay him.