West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, coach of the Greenbrier East...

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, coach of the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team, reacts to action on the court at the state tournament Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Charleston, W.Va. Credit: AP/Rick Barbero

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice recently returned to the spotlight, it wasn’t as the state's top executive. Or a wealthy businessman. Or even as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

The term-limited Republican was instead back on the court, guiding a high school team in the quarterfinals of the state basketball tournament.

Compared to his everyday dealings as governor as well as owner of the posh Greenbrier Resort and more than 100 other businesses, it was a respite for the 72-year-old former billionaire who moonlights as the girls coach at Greenbrier East.

It was a chance for him to focus on a group of young players who'd won 21 of their 25 previous games. The school last won the state title in 2012, also under Justice, who's been the girls coach since 2000. He also has been president of youth baseball’s Little League chapter in Beckley since 1992.

“I love my job being with kids,” Justice said. “Giving time to kids is precious and mandatory today. Like it or not like it, but these rascals go through a whole lot of pressures today that we never had before.”

Justice has let his assistant coaches handle team practices when he’s elsewhere on official duties. He also was the school's boys basketball coach for six years until 2017, deciding he couldn't give it the focus it required due to being governor. In 2021, the Greenbrier County Board of Education rejected a motion to hire Justice as boys coach again after former NBA player Bimbo Coles resigned.

The girls job alone is challenging, “but really and truly, it’s a real honor for me to be with them,” he said. “And I mean it when I say I love every last one of them. They give me energy. They give me youth, to tell you the truth.”

Greenbrier East High School student Parker Hill holds a cardboard...

Greenbrier East High School student Parker Hill holds a cardboard cutout of Gov. Jim Justice at the West Virginia girls state basketball tournament Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Charleston, W.Va. Justice is the girls basketball coach at Greenbrier East. Credit: AP/John Raby

The pause in politics on Super Tuesday came at a busy time and just before a critical point in his career. In May, Justice, who is finishing up his second term as governor, will seek the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Joe Manchin.

But having a revolving door of responsibilities hardly fazes Justice.

“To be straight up honest, I don’t go on vacations. I don’t want to go on a vacation,” he said. “I love being in this state with the people, in the schools, doing everything that they’re doing.”

For a few hours, though, Justice didn’t have to be concerned about the state’s finances or his own, and there’s plenty of frayed nerves about that to go around.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, right, greets members of the...

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, right, greets members of the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team at the state tournament Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Charleston, W.Va. Justice is the team's coach. Credit: AP/John Raby

The West Virginia Legislature was in the final week of its 60-day session. Its work on the annual budget hit a snag over serious questions from the federal government about state spending on education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Justice's businesses have been the target of efforts to collect fines, late taxes and debts. Bluestone Resources was ordered to turn over a helicopter for sale in a debt dispute involving an investment firm. And a Virginia bank seeking more than $300 million on defaulted business loans called off the planned auction of land along a golf course at the governor's resort, which is in White Sulphur Springs near the Virginia border and 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) from the high school of about 1,050 students.

Justice recycles his small coach’s salary back into the basketball program. As governor, Justice has said he donates his $150,000 state salary to his wife Cathy's education initiative.

He's known for quirky, unpredictable speeches and drew national attention when he lifted his dog and showed its rear end during his 2022 State of the State speech in response to a comment from Bette Midler.

At the Charleston Coliseum a few miles from the state Capitol, several members of Justice’s staff and Cabinet sat behind Greenbrier East's bench. If Justice had a security detail with him at the game, it wasn’t noticeable, and certainly not alongside him.

Over in the student section, Parker Hill flashed a cardboard cutout of Justice’s face.

“Big Jim!” Hill yelled.

At 6-foot-7 (2 meters), Justice towers over his players, who simply refer to the former college golfer as “Coach.”

Ben Routson, Greenbrier East's former athletic director and now the principal, has known Justice for 10 years and says they've always had a good relationship.

“To us, he’s just like anyone else. He’s Coach Justice,” Routson said. “He’s personable. He’s very good to our kids and very good to our school.”

Swinging his left leg as he sat on a stool, Justice put both hands on his head in frustration when one of his girls missed a layup. He did it again when another player grabbed a rebound, turned and threw the ball directly to an opponent, who scored easily. That gaffe prompted a chiding later from Justice: “Will you just slow down?”

Mainly, Justice tries to be encouraging to a lineup filled with freshmen and sophomores. “Show them what you can do,” he said during a timeout.

“He definitely gives us some hard times,” sophomore Kennedy Stewart said after the Spartans' 47-31 loss to defending state champion Morgantown. Teammate Ava Workman quickly added, “He makes jokes with us, too.”

“They’re dad jokes,” Stewart explained, prompting a playful nudge from a beaming Justice.

Justice’s daughter, Jill, played for him in the state tournament two decades ago. She's now president of her father's resort and a physician at its health clinic. Her brother, Jay, runs the family's coal and agricultural businesses.

Greenbrier East also advanced to the tournament in 2020, but hours before its game, Justice the governor called everything off as the COVID-19 pandemic bore down on West Virginia.

Stewart's sister was on that team.

Now, it was her turn.

“This is better than just watching them. I got to play,” Stewart said. “And I'll have that forever.”

If Justice wins the Senate seat, he plans to continue tutoring young athletes, despite the challenges of traveling from Washington D.C.

“I'm going to. Some way. Somehow,” Justice said. “I'll do the job as far as being a senator if it works out that way. But I'm going to coach.”

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