Almost every time someone in the media asks Gov. Jim Justice about starting up winter sports at West Virginia high schools, he has a ready answer.
He asks if it’s a good idea to bring people indoors to watch games — especially grandparents and those older fans who are at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications.
Justice said it earlier this week at a COVID briefing: “To bring kids, a game atmosphere with grandparents or whatever it may be inside a gymnasium, is that the thing to do today?’’
And then a couple of days later after another “Let Them Play’’ rally outside the Capitol, somewhat in disbelief, Justice said: “What do they really want? Are they willing to just open the doors, do anything and everything we want? Are they willing to say ... let’s just say everybody age 70 or above, they’re all gonna die?’’
Those points are well-taken, but Justice never seems to think about possible alternatives when it comes to playing basketball and other winter sports, like every state surrounding West Virginia seems to be doing these days.
What about limited attendance? What about no attendance?
University of Charleston and West Virginia State just opened their men’s and women’s basketball seasons on Thursday with home games, and no fans were permitted. Mountain East Conference games are being live-streamed and available to watch or to listen to on radio while the league maintains its fan ban.
Limited attendance seems to be working in the state of Ohio. The final word is up to individual school districts, but most seem to be allowing four people in the gym for each of the home team’s players and coaches and two per visiting team players and coaches. And many of those fans are only immediate family members — parents/guardians and brothers/sisters — people who live in the same household as the players. No one else is admitted — usually no grandparents — and everyone must wear a mask or they’re asked to leave.
As Justice’s decision to halt winter sports until March 1 drags on, there seems to be a growing movement among West Virginia’s basketball coaching fraternity to ask for the chance to play games with no fans.
“One thing I do know,’’ said St. Albans boys coach Bryan England, “is that every player in this state and every coach in this state is willing to play with no fans in the gym if we are allowed to play.
“At St. Albans, we’ve been streaming every game for free since I became coach [in 2017], and we will continue to do that. We won’t charge. People will get the chance to watch us play if we get the chance to get in the gym and play.’’
England understands that all is contingent on getting students back in school buildings full-time, as Justice wants to do on Jan. 19.
“Right now, we’re not in school,’’ England said, “and I can understand not being able to play when we’re not in school. School comes first, and I agree with the governor on that. I do not agree with being able to start school and having classes full of students and teachers, lunchrooms full of students and teachers, and gyms filled with PE classes and kids running up and down the court, but not being able to play games without fans or with limited fans.
“I don’t think there’s any basis for it. The fact is, we’re an outlier in this part of the country. Once we start school and our kids are able to come back — learning comes first. But there’s no justification that once school starts that we shouldn’t be playing basketball.’’
Some coaches around the state have developed the theory that Justice doesn’t want to start up winter sports because, as girls basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School, he realizes his program is stuck in a rebuilding mode after losing two senior starters, then having junior Amya Damon transfer to St. Joseph and seeing Emma Dotson enroll early at WVU for soccer.
As we all know, Justice is proud of his record when it comes to coaching.
In a 2009 interview with the Gazette-Mail, Justice said the following: “I don’t want to sound immodest, but I can really make a deal, I can really shoot a shotgun and I can really coach a basketball team.’’
Of course, his publicity crew touts the fact that Justice earned his 1,000th career coaching win in 2016, but less than half of those are actual high school team victories. He has 481 wins in 23 total seasons at East, 378 in 20 seasons with the girls team and 103 in six seasons with the boys, a position he relinquished in 2017. The rest of those wins came at many other levels — semi-pro, AAU, junior high and Christian youth teams.
Several state coaches, like George Washington boys coach Rick Greene and Nitro girls coach Pat Jones, have even gone public with their feelings that Justice doesn’t want to besmirch that record with an inexperienced Spartans team, thus he holds the season hostage. Plenty of other coaches have said the same thing to the Gazette-Mail in recent weeks, but don’t want to go on the record about the rumors.
Added to that is the fact that legal pressure is being put on Justice to reside in Charleston instead of Greenbrier County, making it more difficult to coach the Spartans.
One coach who has had past issues with Justice has heard the talk from other coaches around West Virginia about underlying reasons why Justice really doesn’t want to allow winter sports. Brian Nabors, the girls basketball coach at Woodrow Wilson, doesn’t want to buy into the conspiracy, though.
“To be honest,’’ Nabors said, “I’ve read some of those comments and wouldn’t want to get into those-type theories ... because I’m not the expert.’’
Nabors, however, did think that Justice is making a mistake by continuing to serve as Greenbrier East’s coach during the pandemic.
“If it was me and I was governor in charge of the state,’’ Nabors said, “I definitely wouldn’t be coaching basketball right now. I’d take a leave of absence and let somebody else take care of that and focus more on taking care of the state. It’s a conflict of interest that he’s a girls basketball coach and he’s able to make decisions on whether these teams play or not. I think it’s best left to someone else. It’s not fair, and that’s just how I feel personally. We’re in a serious situation.’’
Justice, of course, caused a major stir last season when he called Woodrow Wilson’s players “a bunch of thugs’’ following the suspension of a girls game between the Spartans and Flying Eagles. That game was halted after a Woodrow assistant coach and a Spartans fan got into a scuffle behind the Woodrow bench. It led to Nabors taking his team off the court.
Nabors’ main concern about the current delay and March 1 resumption boils down to allowing the players to be physically prepared to make their return when what figures to be a condensed season finally tips off.
“If we’re going to start in March,’’ Nabors said, “we need to be allowed to do some conditioning, able to do things in small pods to get these kids prepared to play because they’re going to be playing three, four games a week and for the kids, that’s not safe, especially if you haven’t trained your body to play three, four games a week. It’s almost like playing an NBA schedule. You’ve got to work on your cardiovascular system, not just for basketball, but to be immune to this disease. A whole lot of things go along with that.
“We need to be allowed to condition to be ready to practice, because our practices are pretty tough. We need to be given the opportunity to condition, or at least condition mentally. It’d be a crying shame if kids get hurt because their muscles aren’t in shape to take the pounding. Like I tell our girls, we have to stay ready so we don’t have to get ready.
“Another thing I tell them all the time, even when it doesn’t look good, is that you’ve got to keep the faith that what’s going to happen is for the best.’’