The downtown Pork Chop Johns was nearly empty late one weekend night in March of 1991.
Only two tables were taken, and the old Pac-Man machine was vacant.
I was at one table, and Gary Kane and a group of friends was at another across the room. I sat there slowly eating my pork chop and drinking my chocolate milkshake while doing a very poor job of trying to pretend I wasn’t listening to Kane’s conversation.
Kane and his Montana Grizzlies had just played against UNLV in the 1991 NCAA Tournament. The former Butte High star hit a few 3-pointers and scored a team-leading 15 points in the 99-65 loss to UNLV, which I still say is the best college basketball team I ever saw.
I was too nervous to go up and talk to Kane and ask him about playing against Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon. Luckily, the guys Kane was with were asking all the right questions.
I eavesdropped and hung on every word. Even though I was trying really hard not to stare, I’m quite sure Kane could tell.
Kane did a great job describing what it was like playing against Jerry Tarkanian’s legendary team. He talked about the crowd in Arizona, and he gave some colorful examples of the trash talk he received from defending champions.
I specifically remember Kane describing to the group what it felt like to be on a team that appeared on the NCAA 64-team tournament bracket. When he was filling out a bracket as a kid, he said, he could only dream of being on one of those teams, and now he was.
While he certainly didn’t appear to get caught up in the moment when he played, he was clearly blown away by it all afterward.
Everybody in town was just as excited about seeing a Butte boy playing for a team on the bracket, though nobody was crazy enough to pick the No. 16-seeded Grizzlies to beat the No. 1 Runnin’ Rebels.
That game was so much fun to watch. Every UNLV game was fun back in those days. They were like the “Showtime” Lakers, only the UNLV players were paid more. Allegedly.
As amazing as that UNLV team was that night, the best thing about watching that game was seeing that a Butte boy definitely belonged on the court. He was one of the better players in that game, and if the Rebels had a shooter like Kane on their side a couple weeks later they never would have lost to Duke.
That is, of course, assuming that gamblers didn’t pay the UNLV players to lose that game, which they likely did.
There’s no way Duke really beat that team, and the photo of the UNLV players in a hot tub with known game fixer Richard Perry is all the evidence I need to know that the Rebels threw that game. They also probably bugged Trump Tower.
Following along as Kane led the Butte High Bulldogs was exciting, too. I’ll never forget crowding around the radio in Mr. Brophy’s class at Butte Central Junior High to hear Kane hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer in the first-round of the 1989 Class AA State tournament in Billings.
Sadly, I’ll never forget listening to the radio in my kitchen as the Bulldogs fell victim to not committing enough second-half fouls as they scrambled to try to get the ball back in their championship-game loss to Kalispell.
Though they didn’t take a parade in a fire truck that season, that 1988-89 Butte High basketball team, which went 21-1, is still the best I ever saw. Never in a million years did I think that team could lose.
They were the 1991 Runnin’ Rebels of Montana high school basketball.
I wonder if there’s a photo floating around of Gary Kane, Todd Ericson and Jasson McNallie in a hot tub with a notorious game fixer.
While that team was full of great players, Kane was the star. He averaged 21.5 points per game. He is the only Butte High player to ever average more than 20 points in a season. Any season.
MTN Sports named Kane one of the top 50 Montana players over the last 50 years for a reason. He was also named the Montana Gatorade Player of the Year for 1988-89.
Watching Kane play at the University of Montana, though, was even better. It was so much fun to see a Butte boy shine on the big stage.
Kane hit 68 3-pointers for the Grizzlies during the 1990-91 season, and the next year he helped the Grizzlies defend their Big Sky Conference title and advance to the NCAA Tournament to play Florida State.
It is only a matter of time before Kane is enshrined in the Butte Sports Hall of Fame. He very well could be the best basketball player the Mining City ever produce. He’s at least in that conversation.
Unfortunately, Kane’s story falls on the incomplete side.
His final years at the University of Montana were disrupted by a frustrating and mysterious injury. The injury was one that, possibly, was brought on because he worked his body too hard.
How about that? One of the most talented players is also the hardest worker? That is something we don’t see nearly enough, but it was, by all accounts, the case with Gary Kane.
That is why he received Montana’s Naseby Rhinehard Award as the Grizzlies’ most inspirational player in 1994. In case you didn’t notice, that is a really big deal.
Because of that injury, we only got to see a glimpse of Kane’s greatness. But what a glimpse it was.
His great career was substantial enough that we don’t have to ask “what might have been?” But we still can’t help but wonder just that because his start in Missoula was so incredible.
Maybe the injury is why, a quarter of a century later, Kane seems to be a bit underappreciated. Maybe his star just didn’t shine long enough for everyone to notice.
The people who really watched him play, however, remember well.
Every time people talk about brackets this time of year, I think about Gary Kane showing the world he belonged on the same court as that great UNLV team. I think about how much fun that was.
I remember his enthusiasm as he described that he had as much fun playing as we did watching, if not more.
And it makes me crave a pork chop with a chocolate shake.
— Bill Foley, who has never been photographed in a hot tub with a notorious game fixer, writes a column that appears Tuesday on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.