F. Brian Ferguson
Greenbrier East basketball coach Jim Justice talks to his undefeated girls team during last week's Big Atlantic Classic in Beckley. Justice has also coached the boys team to a 16-1 record.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It seems whatever Jim Justice touches turns to gold.He rescued The Greenbrier from bankruptcy. He inked a six-year contract with the PGA Tour for The Greenbrier Classic, a tournament few thought he had a chance of landing, let alone moving it to the Fourth of July weekend. And last year the PGA approached him with an extension for The Greenbrier Classic through 2021.Now, Justice is working his magic on the hardwood with the Greenbrier East boys and girls basketball teams. Justice had guided both the Spartans' boys and girls squads to undefeated records into the last week of January, until Friday night when the boys were upset in the Big Atlantic Classic, a tournament, by the way, that he's been spearheading for 24 years.The Spartans (16-1) were fourth in last week's Class AAA Associated Press boys poll and were the only undefeated team at 15-0 before the setback. The East girls (14-0), the defending state champions, are the only unblemished team in AAA and have been No. 1 in the AP poll the past four weeks."I seem to have the ability to get more out of people than maybe they would customarily do,'' said The Greenbrier resort owner, who also runs Justice Family Farms. "I do that within my businesses. I have a real simple philosophy, and that is the coach or the president has to genuinely care about the kids and the employees, and then the employees and the kids have to really care back."That gets a little tough at times. Then the coach or the employer has to make it mandatory that the employees or the kids care for one another. If you can really get that going ... it seems so simple. They love me. They'd fight a grizzly bear for me and they would because they know I'd fight it for them.''Justice has coached the East girls for 13 seasons, producing six trips to the state tournament since 2003. He guided the school to a 26-1 record last year and its second state title and first since 1981. The Spartans also advanced to the AAA title game in 2004, but lost to South Charleston.He took on the boys coaching duties last season and finished with a 13-12 mark, their first winning season in several years. They last played in the state tournament in 1986 and their only state title came in 1972."When I first came there the first three games I coached for Greenbrier East we lost,'' he said of the girls program. " That's where it all started. We've come a long way. It's been a long, long time since the Greenbrier East boys had this type of basketball team.''Justice has coached in more than 1,000 games at every level from elementary to semi-pro and compiled a breathtaking 868-173 record for an .834 winning percentage."I'm just eat up with passion and enthusiasm,'' he said. "I'm probably the most competitive person you've ever known, but I'm going to be a gentleman if I lose.
"I don't mean this in a bad way, but I'm good at this. I know what I'm good at. I'm confident about knowing all the Xs and Os. I've done this for so long it's unbelievable. And really and truly, I'm better at this than owning The Greenbrier.''There's no doubt Justice has a knack of bringing together players from diverse backgrounds to form a winning combination.Last season three girls moved in from out of state, but East meshed the new with the old to capture a state championship. This year they have been tested when two of those starters moved back to their home states because of family circumstances."So we took two cannon balls to the stomach,'' Justice said. "You lose a 6-foot-6 post player and a D-1 point guard. [Our players] had to revamp everything. They had to change everything and they've really done a great job.''
On the boys side this season, the Spartans added junior combination guard Rondale Watson, a Class AA first-team all-state selection at Oak Hill last year, and senior point guard Bryce Woodliff, who moved in from the Roanoke, Va., area. Obi Romeo, a 6-9 junior center who is originally from Nigeria, joined the squad last season.
"The boys came in athletic,'' said Justice. "They had no idea how to run within a structure. Rondale was athletic as he could be, but nowhere close to the player he is today. Obi would take [the ball] and run with it and then dunk it. He didn't have any idea how to dribble."We've had kids like Dereck Weiford, Evan Ramsey and Owen Browning; kids that weren't really supposed to be stars step up and play. Now they can take their athleticism with all that they've learned and they can be really tough.''Justice is also a stickler for detail and discipline."I'm the guy that drives people crazy,'' he said. "If your foot is supposed to be here and it's there, it's not good enough. It's just plain not good enough for me. We put a lot of stuff in. You can't be a dummy and play for me."You've got to be really able to process it and I expect you to make your grades, too. [The players] know it's not good enough for me for them to come out with their pants hanging down half way off their behind and [wearing] different kind of socks. We're not doing that. We're going to look the part and be the part.''
Justice has taken a beating the last several years on messages boards and chat rooms for welcoming so many transfers."If we're trying to do something why did we let the two [girls] go?,'' he said. "Everybody said, 'What about these kids. Is there something you could do to keep them?'"There's probably something I could have done, but it wasn't what they wanted. It wasn't what their families wanted. They wanted something else. I'm tickled to death for those kids. They were great kids and great families. I coach whoever comes in the door. That's just all there is to it.''Justice said success often attracts talent."Let's use some sense,'' he said. "The thing that's really hard for people to understand, they look at me and say, 'Well, that guys owns The Greenbrier.'"The bottom line is it's hard for them to realize that I'm just a coach. People want to come to our program, our community and our school because it's good. What are we going to do, beat them away?''Justice said East has provided a safe landing for kids who have had troubled backgrounds."For all these naysayers, they don't know that Bryce Woodliff came to us,'' the East coach said. "He would have ended up in a public school with a lot of bad influences in Roanoke and his dad said, 'I don't want that for my son. We're going somewhere and we're getting away from here. My son is drifting the wrong way.'"He's a great young man. As far as me having a role in it, forget it. Rondale has grown into the best person and a good, good guy. Obi is adopted by a white family and that kid, it's the saddest but greatest story in the world.''Justice could have two busy weeks in mid-March when the girls and boys state tournaments run concurrently at the Charleston Civic Center."I am genuinely in this for one thing and that's the kids,'' he said. "I've won enough gold rings. You just really want to see these kids mature, do good academically and become good citizens. I love it for the community.''Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.