West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who made headlines late last year when he said he thought former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's biography was a "complete fairy tale," stirred up controversy last week for offering a similar assessment of a senior girls high school basketball team he coached.
In a newspaper article commemorating his 30 years as a coach, Justice said:
“At my high school, you’re either a really good athlete or a really good basketball player. That’s the real justice. I’ve never envisioned a basketball team being thugs. They’re not thugs. I never dreamed a basketball team could be thugs."
That has gotten a fair bit of attention, but Justice is far from alone in using the terms "thugs" and "thugs teams" to describe the competition in his home state. A report by ESPN published Thursday cited a list of college basketball coaches (among them Duke's Mike Krzyzewski) who saw the team's dominant conference season in a section of the ESPN.com headline, "The Isolated Crazy of Prep basketball in West Virginia. It is disturbing."
So what exactly is the problem with referring to West Virginia basketball players as thugs? And when did "hijacking" become a bad, negative thing? Why was an elementary school basketball team from Beckley, W.Va., known as the "Hutto Hustlers" -- an assumption Justice's remarks about it might have prompted -- so much better than the others?
West Virginia boys' basketball coach Art Bronson, whose team is the only team on the current roster to play in the state's top league, the Big South Conference, told the Winston-Salem Journal last year that he believes the term has been "politicized" and "basically no longer serves any purpose." And basketball observers are likely to be more interested in how Supreme's characterization of his former team is received than the reactions by the high school basketball coaches who coaches pick from for whom the word "thug" is best translated.
I recently had a positive conversation with a West Virginia woman. She told me her daughter plays in high school, her son plays in college and her husband coaches high school. They agreed that only a select few, the ones who make their teams the rule, are “thugs." Then, as a way to warm them up to her, she told them about a player she had in college who scored 50 points in a game. She explained that that player was a thug, not a team, and suggested that the more they knew about him, the more they would like him. The coaches she spoke with were perfectly aware of this but agreed that it was a rare and special player. He was just a monster on the court. All were well aware that there are different rules for the people who run and manage college hoops teams, and there are different rules for the teams coached by high school coaches.
So Justice isn't the first high-profile West Virginia coach to say basketball players are "thugs," and his belief that the term had nothing to do with their actual behavior might be more accurately described as "based on an assessment of past performance." But it doesn't seem right to lump so many exceptional individuals into one bunch of people with a bad habit of shooting baskets. This is called judgment and it's about more than that word.
Indeed, there are some coaches who are as offended as ESPN seems to be by the use of "thug" in basketball terms. And I've reached out to several of them for their thoughts, but so far none of them have commented. And as Justice told the Winston-Salem Journal, you shouldn't expect to hear his opinions reflected by all the high school coaches in West Virginia. That would suggest, at least on its face, that he hasn't actually heard what high school coaches have to say about the use of "thug" in basketball terms.
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