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Jim Justice serves team, community

3/9/2012
Jim Justice has coached the Greenbrier East (Lewisburg, W.Va.) girls’ basketball team for the past 12 seasons. Lawrence Pierce/The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Before Thursday night's state quarterfinal matchup with Huntington (W.Va.), Greenbrier East (Lewisburg, W.Va.) girls' basketball coach Jim Justice gave a somewhat prototypical pregame speech.

"You've come a long way and bonded together," he told his charges, "but this is only one step down here. … I know you're nervous but use it to your advantage and get the adrenaline going."

He referenced the Kevin Costner movie "For the Love of the Game." He paraphrased Tiger Woods' mother exhorting her son to "step on their throats." He ended with the customary, "Let's pray."

Nothing unusual there. What's atypical about Justice is that he's one of the few high school coaches who runs both boys' and girls' basketball teams. And he's probably the only one on Forbes' list of billionaires.

Justice would contend that the two things are not unrelated.

Two-sport star

It's been a busy week for Justice. On Tuesday, his boys' team fell to Parkersburg after advancing to the state's Sweet 16. On Wednesday, the family's beloved Boston Terrier, Molly, who sleeps in the bed with Justice and his wife, Cathy, of 35 years, underwent surgery.

Then came Thursday night's state quarterfinals game for the girls. After Justice's speech, Greenbrier East (24-1) went out and defeated Huntington, 66-55. The Spartans will play George Washington (Charleston, W.Va.) in the Class AAA semifinal Friday night.

Resembling an ex-lineman more than the wispy collegiate golfer he once was, the 6-foot-6 Justice didn't stalk the sideline like many of his counterparts tend to do. He mostly sat on the bench, rising only to contest calls or offer advice to his players.

Justice, 60, had knee surgery last year, and it's limited his mobility, but it hasn't dampened his spirits. If anything, Justice has as much energy as his young charges.

"He relates well with the players and has a sense of humor and is funny," freshman Anna Hammaker said after the game. "He's loose and knows when to be calm. We don't feel a lot of pressure because of his style."

Hammaker, the daughter of former MLB player Atlee Hammaker, had 21 points in the win, while another freshman, 6-foot-6 Cheyenne Hooper, contributed 14 points, 19 rebounds and 7 blocks.

There's only one senior on the roster, but this could be the most talented team Justice has had in his 12 years as the girls' coach. The Spartans have made the finals one other time in his tenure, in 2004, but he has yet to hoist the state championship trophy. (East won its only state title in 1981.)

Win or lose, the season has to be considered a success for Justice. In addition to leading one of the top girls' teams in the state, he took over the middling boys' program this year. It's an unusual arrangement and not one without complications (mostly of the scheduling variety), but once East principle Jeff Bryant got the notion to offer the reins to Justice, he pushed it hard.

"When you see someone who has that 'it' factor, who demonstrates greatness on a daily basis around young people, I know it's selfish on my part but I just knew I wanted to have [Justice] coach both teams," Bryant said.

According to Bryant, there was initially some skepticism.

"You heard in the community, 'How can one person do both teams? It's unrealistic; it's unfair to the kids,'" he said.

Even Marion Gordon, Justice's longtime assistant with the girls' team, had his doubts. "At first, I thought he was crazy," Gordon said.

But after a season in which the boys' team posted only its second winning record in the past 10 years and advanced deep into the playoffs, the concerns have been allayed. Justice, who this winter has put a lot of miles on his black Chevy Suburban, didn't miss a varsity practice or game all season. His company has three major interests -- energy, agriculture and hospitality -- and since winter is the slowest season for the latter two, he was able to pull off coaching both teams.

"I don't hear too many people now doubting that this grand experiment was definitely the right thing to do," Bryant said.

Coach and teacher

On-court success is one thing, but Justice's proponents consider it secondary to his impact on kids' lives. Justice likes to tell parables from his life or handed down from his father (his players call it "story time") -- experiences that shaped who he is and have allowed him to have the success he's had.

Perhaps his most oft-repeated mantra is "Don't confuse effort with accomplishment."

"I don't want you to come back and tell me you tried real hard," he said. "You can't just give your best, you have to find some way get over the mountain."

In doing so, he says, attitude is key. And that was the biggest adjustment he tried to make when he took over the boys' team.

Junior guard Richard Romeo was, by his admission, a textbook case of a bad demeanor. A talented player who spent much of the season hurt, he'd get down on himself or his teammates.

"[He] surely didn't have the attitude or the persona -- the body language -- that you would want from your point guard," Justice said.

That changed over the course of the year. Justice implored Romeo to stay positive and encourage his teammates.

"He was always pushing for the right morals, how to carry ourselves," Romeo said.

The junior guard was able to return in time to key the team's sectional run. Even his mother noticed a change.

"She comments on it every other day," Romeo said. "She can just see a tremendous change in my attitude and demeanor."

The night the boys' team lost its sectional game, Justice received a text from Romeo: "Sorry we lost coach but I loved playing with you more than anything in the entire world, thank you for everything."

Hotelier

For all of the success of the girls' basketball team, Justice is probably best known in the community as a business mogul (No. 368 on the Forbes' 400 list with an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion) and the relatively new proprietor of the historic Greenbrier Resort.

Located in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., about 12 miles east of the high school, the Greenbrier is one of the county's largest employers, but in 2009 it was put into bankruptcy by then-owners CSX.

Had the property been purchased by dark horse Marriott, Justice says, the final employment would have been 700-900 people, and many of those would have seen their benefits slashed considerably. Instead, Justice, who made his fortune in coal and commercial farming, purchased the Greenbrier and pledged millions to revamp it. The resort currently employs 1,850, more than ever before, and Justice is committed to restoring the facility to its previous heights: the luxury resort and hotel that has received 26 U.S. presidents over the years.

"If [Justice] hadn't come around three years ago, I feel the Greenbrier as we've known it would not be in existence," Bryant said. "It's the lifeblood of this community, and it's far-reaching in its impact. The loss of the jobs would have been devastating."

This is not charity work, of course: Justice, whose company has expanded its hospitality holdings considerably in the past few years, stands to benefit, too. But one suspects this was not the most financially expedient move he could have made. He put his company, and himself, at some risk in guaranteeing the resort's debts.

"It's all really sincere," Justice said. "This was a treasure and I am on this real quest to show the world what a jewel West Virginia is. I love it, I love its people and that's why I've tried to do all the things I've done."

If attitude is the first thing Justice stresses to his teams, loyalty is a close second. That applies to both his employees and his student-athletes.

"I've got family that works for him at the Greenbrier," Gordon said. "I see their enthusiasm like I see with the kids and basketball. They all like him. He'll do anything to help you.

"He runs his businesses the same way he runs his basketball program."

For Justice, the winning formula remains the same.