By Brittany Kriz
James Justice, a senior at Martin Methodist College (Tenn.), took home the slam dunk title in New Orleans this week in a sellout Fogelman Arena at Tulane University in the State Farm College Slam Dunk & 3-Point Championships. The contest was televised live on ESPN.
Justice showed off his 52-inch vertical leap as he beat out Auburn's Kenny Gabriel, Miami's DeQuan Jones and Clemson's Bryan Narcisse in the semifinals. In the finals, he brought the judges out of their chairs with a thrown-up, between-the-legs, left-handed dunk that became the No. 1 play on ESPN's SportsCenter.
The 5'10" Justice was the smallest competitor, and he's also the only one to be chosen by fans rather than by contest organizers. Justice was the winner of the Dark Horse Dunker Contest, a bracket style voting contest on Facebook that picked 16 under-the-radar players and let fans vote on their favorite dunkers.
In addition to being the physical underdog, Justice carried the banner for the smaller schools. Martin Methodist College is a small NAIA school situated in the town of Pulaski, Tenn., just north of the Alabama border. About 7800 people live in Pulaski, and the Martin Methodist student body numbers around 1,100 students.
To even get in the contest in the first place, Justice had to mobilize a small fan base and use social media to gain a fan following. To improve Justice's chances in the fan contest, the Martin Methodist Athletic Department started "Operation Justice," a campaign released on the 'Help MMC Get James Justice into the College Dunk Contest' Facebook group along with several videos of Justice.
"Operation Justice" had two phases. The first was to ask friends from overseas to vote for Justice, so he could gain global support, and the second phase was to ask friends in the armed forces to vote for Justice. All the while, friends and fans were asked to spread the word of Justice to as many people as they could.
"You know, even though I don't go to (Martin Methodist), I have a friend who goes there, and that's how I heard about this," said David Hinson, one of the 3,000 members of the Facebook group.
The Justice campaign went across the nation, receiving votes from nearly every state, and even recruited the assistance of 20 countries around the globe, including Mexico, Canada, Brazil, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Russia, Poland, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Australia and several others.
"That was the biggest surprise," Justice said. "I didn't think it would go globally. And, without (those fans), I wouldn't (have gone) to New Orleans."
The campaign also rallied support from Pulaski and surrounding communities.
"It's very easy for larger schools to poll their student bodies against Martin's," said Pat Ford, mayor of Pulaski and director of student housing. "It's pretty awesome to solicit the help of the communities around us. People had a bit of ownership in it, and that's very special for the community and Martin as well."
Local businesses displayed "Vote for Justice" or "We Support Justice" signs outside their doors, encouraging everyone to vote.
"We wanted to show our support and get the word out to others as well," said Doug Wallace, manager at Legends Steakhouse. "I'm all about underdogs and small town heroes. We just wanted to show our support and to show him our support."
After his win in the Facebook contest was announced, friends and fans witnessed Justice and the Martin Methodist RedHawks in action during the 75th Annual Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship Tournament, held in the Municipal Auditorium at Kansas City, Mo.
Justice and the RedHawks sailed through the first round of the tournament, defeating the Southern Nazarene Crimson Storm (Okla.) 81-68. But, an 88-74 upset in the second round against Mountain State University put Justice and the RedHawks out of the tournament and ended their season.
Thanks to the contest though, Justice got to finish his collegiate career with one more big slam. He is hoping the opportunity provides him with a chance to further his basketball career and perhaps play or coach. He is getting a degree from Martin Methodist in physical education.
"This opportunity is a blessing, and I want to thank everyone who voted," Justice said.
Brittany Kriz is an NAIA Virtual Intern and a sophomore at Martin Methodist College (Tenn.)