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Published: Sunday, December 27, 2009
Page: 1A

Jim Justice wasn't about to let a winter storm that dumped 2 feet of snow on Greenbrier County shut down the Lady Spartans' basketball game against Spring Valley last week.

Justice hired a snow-removal contractor. The trucks plowed the Greenbrier East High School parking lot. A near sell-out crowd - there's always a huge crowd at the Lady Spartans' games - showed up.

Justice - better known around Lewisburg as "Coach Justice" - guided the team to yet another victory, this one by a single point.

He's used to winning.

"I take a lot of pride in doing a job and doing it well," Justice said. "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."

Indeed, Justice can coach basketball - he has a career coaching record of 765 wins and 152 losses in semi-pro, high school and AAU leagues over 30 years.

He's also an avid turkey hunter.

And he orchestrated one of the biggest business deals in West Virginia this year. He purchased The Greenbrier for $20.1 million in May, rescuing the luxury resort from bankruptcy.

But there's another side of Justice that he doesn't talk much about: He's always giving back to communities where he lives and works.

"He's the most benevolent one-man stimulus package you'd ever meet," said John Klemish, who returned to direct sales at The Greenbrier Sporting Club last summer at Justice's request.

"Jim Justice bought The Greenbrier to save people's jobs. Who does that anymore? He's the feel-good story of the year."

For those reasons, Justice is also the Sunday Gazette-Mail's 2009 West Virginian of the Year.

Folks in Greenbrier County say this: Greenbrier East girls basketball games are something special.

Before tip-off, the lights go out, a strobe flashes, and music thumps from a loudspeaker. The Lady Spartans are in the house, and they come racing onto the court through an inflatable tunnel.

At the half, Justice sponsors a $2,000 "Dash for Cash" during which lucky spectators get to scoop up dollar bills scattered across the court. Other games allow kids to take part in a relay race, slipping on oversized basketball shoes and uniforms. The first to dribble down the court and sink a basket wins.

During the second half, cheerleaders distribute free donuts to spectators. After the game, Justice treats his team to a hot meal.

Justice has coached the Lady Spartans for 10 years. He started when his daughter played for the team. Justice has taken Greenbrier East to the state playoffs five times, including a trip to the finals.

He studies film. He scouts opposing teams. He consults with other coaches about how to make his team better.

A couple of years ago, Justice paid to renovate the boys and girls locker rooms.

His next project was the gymnasium floor, which had deteriorated over the years. He traveled to college and NBA arenas. He decided to buy a $300,000 parquet floor for Greenbrier East's gym - the same kind of wooden floor the Boston Celtics play on at the Fleet Center.

Justice continues to spend money to keep the floor in top condition. No one ever has to ask him for help.

"He does these things because he wants to," said Jeff Bryant, Greenbrier East's principal. "The girls have class like Coach Justice has. They're an extension of him because they admire him so much."

Sometimes Justice will call a time-out, usually near the end of the season's final home game, and tell the girls to look around them, soak it all in, appreciate what they have at that moment.

"Ten seconds," Justice will tell them. "Look around you for 10 seconds."

"He has the ability to make them open their eyes and get a real perspective on what's important," Bryant said. "That people care about them, and in turn, they become caring people."

Justice's players are quick to point out that Coach Justice isn't a pushover. He works them hard. They practice six days a week - sometimes twice a day. They have a 4-1 record this year.

"We all respect him," said Mary Kellan Curry, a senior point guard on the team. "When he says something, we know to do what he says. He's an all-around great person."

Curry's father, John, the superintendent of Greenbrier County schools, said Justice's passion rubs off on the team, and on everyone.

"From a parent's perspective, he teaches sportsmanship, teamwork, the fundamentals of the game, and what it's like to compete at the highest level," Curry said. "Coach Justice epitomizes all the good things about sports. It's just a delight to watch him work and see the passion he has for student athletes and basketball itself."

Last year, the school held a ceremony to honor their coach. "Jim Justice Court" was unveiled.

"All his players have a wonderful experience," Bryant said. "He takes care of these girls as if they were his own daughters. He just loves coaching basketball."

'He's a visionary'

Jerry West knows the Lady Spartans.

When the NBA legend is in town, he'll sometimes stop by the Greenbrier East gym and teach the girls how to sink a jump shot and play tenacious defense.

Justice and West met about 17 years ago. Justice invited the former Los Angeles Lakers star and Hall-of-Famer to speak at the Coal Classic basketball tournament in Beckley. West didn't hesitate to lend a hand.

"He's very convincing," said West, who was the Sunday Gazette-Mail's co-West Virginian of the Year in 1959, along with NFL great Sam Huff.

Justice and West hit it off, and have been close friends ever since. Each year, they go turkey hunting together.

"He's a typical West Virginian," West said. "He's humble, funny, giving, a fun guy, yet tough-minded in his approach to doing things."

West owns a summer home adjacent to The Greenbrier. He said he was thrilled when he learned last spring that Justice had purchased the resort from longtime owner CSX Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla. The Greenbrier had been losing money for years.

"We were supposed to go turkey hunting, but he kept postponing and postponing," West recalled. "I knew he had something big going on."

The historic resort couldn't be in better hands, West said. Justice already has opened an upscale steakhouse called "Prime 44 West" at The Greenbrier. Justice wanted to honor his friend, whom he considers the greatest athlete ever to hail from West Virginia. The restaurant displays the largest public collection of West memorabilia.

"West Virginia should feel lucky he owns The Greenbrier," West said. "He'll do everything he can to give people a reason to come there. He's a visionary, and he knows how to get things done."

'Rock-solid and loyal West Virginian'

James C. Justice II was born April 27, 1951, in Whitesville, a coal mining town in Boone County.

As a teen, he and his family would stay at The Greenbrier.

Justice graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, attended Greenbrier Military Academy in Lewisburg, then accepted a golf scholarship from the University of Tennessee.

He later transferred to Marshall University, where he received both a bachelor's and master's degree.

In 1976, Justice married his wife, Cathy. He joined the family business that same year, and started Bluestone Farms - now called Justice Family Farms.

The Justices have two children: Jay serves as vice president of the company; and Jill, who played basketball for Clemson University and Marshall University, and now attends medical school at Virginia Tech.

Over the years, Justice Farms grew to become the largest cash grain operation on the East Coast. Last year, the company farmed over 50,000 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Justice Farms' holdings include a commercial grain storage business, a John Deere equipment dealership, timber interests, cotton warehouses, a Christmas tree farm and two turf farms.

The company also owns Stoney Brook Plantation, a 15,000-acre hunting and fishing retreat in Monroe County. The preserve is available to members of The Greenbrier Sporting Club.

After his father died in 1993, Justice became president and CEO of Bluestone Industries and Bluestone Coal Corp. In the late 1990s, Bluestone acquired tens of thousands of acres of coal reserves. Production soared soon after.

In 2003, Justice founded James C. Justice Companies, expanding the firm's coal reserves and acquiring additional mining operations in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia over the years.

Shortly before purchasing The Greenbrier in May, Justice sold Bluestone Industries and its affiliated companies to Mechel, OAO, a Russian mining and metal company, for $400 million.

Justice kept his Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia coal operations, and agricultural operations in West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

With Justice at the helm, the companies had many successes - and some problems.

Companies controlled by Justice ran up more than $1 million in fines for mine safety and health violations, the Sunday Gazette-Mail reported earlier this year. Justice was among the top debtors on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's list of mine operators with unpaid civil penalties.

MSHA assessed those penalties for more than 1,000 violations dating back at least three years. The fines covered companies operating underground and strip mines in West Virginia and Kentucky.

The same day the newspaper reported the penalties, Justice paid off the federal mine safety fines and the remaining portion of a $1.6 million state pollution settlement.

Mechel has appealed the fines, and Justice has said the money will be refunded, if the Russian company wins its appeal.

At the time, Justice remarked, "I don't want anyone ever to believe I'm trying to pass on a liability or shirk my liability. I am a rock-solid and loyal West Virginian."

Justice said he's still trying to get used to being in the national spotlight as The Greenbrier's new owner. He said he's no busier now than he's ever been - it's just that more people are watching his every move.

Days after purchasing The Greenbrier, Justice persuaded a judge to dismiss the resort's bankruptcy case.

He has since rehired dozens of furloughed workers, signed a new contract with the union, paid Marriot International a $7.5 million "break-up" fee to end a marketing partnership, offered rooms for as low as $59 night as part of a "Tribute to the Virginias" promotion and started construction on a $25 million underground casino expected to open in April.

Justice also has hired a new management team with one goal in mind - restoring The Greenbrier's five-star Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide rating. The resort lost its top rating in 2000.

"I'm committed like a laser to get that fifth star back," Justice said earlier this year. "It's a challenge, and we're going to meet that challenge."

'It's about giving'

Three weeks ago, Justice hopped into his private helicopter in Beckley and hopped out dressed as Santa Claus in the rural community of Crumpler in McDowell County.

"Santa" and his "elves" landed in a parking lot across from a small church called Liberty Chapel.

Justice distributed gift bags, stuffed animals, collector's coins and $100 Wal-Mart gift cards to more than 50 low-income children.

Klemish, the Sporting Club's sales director, tagged along dressed as an elf. He figures Justice distributed $30,000 worth of gifts.

"He's the most beautiful human being you'd ever meet," Klemish said. "With Jim Justice, it's all about giving, giving, giving."

Each child got to sit on Santa's knee. They shared stories. They had a small party afterward, sang Christmas carols for Santa.

Justice left behind additional gifts for children unable to attend the event. It was the 10th consecutive year that Justice delivered Christmas cheer in Crumpler.

"It's really sweet, very heartwarming," said Pam Rhodes, Justice's longtime assistant. "When he gets up and gets ready to go, the little ones are yelling, 'Merry Christmas. Bye Santa. We love you.'"

Photo courtesy of Greenbrier Photography
Jim Justice, Greenbrier East’s coach, talks strategy with his team during a timeout last week. School was closed the day of the game, but Justice hired a contractor to plow the parking lot so the game could go on.

Photo courtesy of Greenbrier Photography
West Virginian of the Year Jim Justice and his wife, Cathy, have been married 33 years.

Reach Eric Eyre at or 304-348-4869.

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