Every ear in the classroom was focused on the radio in Mr. Brophy’s room.
All the boys, and some girls, huddled around the history teacher’s desk on the top floor of Butte Central Jr. High, which used to be the St. Patrick’s Grade School.
It was Thursday, March 2, 1989, and the Butte High Bulldogs were playing at the Class AA State tournament in Billings.
It looked like this could be the end of the line for the 19-0 Bulldogs before Todd Ericson forced a turnover with 4 seconds left in the game. The game was tied at 55, and the Bulldogs were about to inbound the ball.
The silence broke in the classroom as Mr. (Barry) Brophy and Mr. (Tom) Pomroy, coaches for the Butte Central varsity girls’ basketball team, discussed what kind of play they would call if they were in Coach Pat Foley’s shoes.
“Throw it in to (Jasson) McNallie,” someone said.
That sounded like a good plan. The 6-foot-6 McNallie averaged 13.8 points per game. A couple of months later, he set Butte High’s school record with a high jump of 6 feet, 10 ¾ inches.
That record still stands today.
Someone else said to set up a play for Ericson. The future No. 37 on the University of Montana football team was really good at basketball, too.
Ericson, who averaged 11.4 points per game, was good at driving to the hoop. He could draw a foul and hit the game-winning free throws.
I could probably live with that play, too, but it is not what I would have called.
Too nervous to speak out loud, I mutter under my breath the obvious answer. “Get the damn ball to Gary Kane.”
Ericson inbounded the ball to Fritz Daily, who passed it to Kane, who is, for my money, the greatest high school basketball player this town has ever seen.
Kane dribbled the ball a few steps closer, and then he swished a 3-pointer as time expired to give the Bulldogs a 58-55 win in the first-round game.
Coach Foley said Kane started heading to the locker room as soon as he let go of the ball.
“The ball wasn’t even halfway to the basket, and I see No. 30 running down the tunnel,” the coach remembered years later. “He said, ‘Coach, don’t worry. I knew it was in.’”
Kane scored 16 points in that thrilling win. McNallie followed with 14, and Ericson tossed in 11.
Back in my classroom, we all celebrated. Mr. Pomroy said he called the shot, though I was too nervous to hear exactly what he said before.
“Listen to the coach,” Pomroy jokingly exclaimed as he raised his arms.
We all laughed. It is literally my only happy memory from the classroom where I was once ordered to copy, by hand, 20 pages out of an encyclopedia because I forgot to do a small homework assignment.
Another time, the class got 10 pages for talking — to do over Thanksgiving break.
I did not like that classroom. I still hate it.
The next night, the Bulldogs beat Missoula Big Sky 65-52 in the semifinals. Ericson scored 17 points in that win. Kane scored 13, and Cory Dunstan tossed in 10.
The night after that, the Bulldogs broke our hearts.
They also broke their own hearts as they fell 53-50 to Kalispell, a team Butte High beat three times that season. That includes Butte High’s win over the Braves in the Western AA Divisional championship game.
Kane scored 25 points in that loss that ended Butte High’s season at 21-1, which is the best record a Bulldog team has ever posted.
I sat silently in my bedroom as I listened to the end of that game. The Bulldogs needed to foul and foul and foul.
With 16 seconds left in the game, Butte High had only committed one second-half foul. That meant they had a tough time sending the Braves to the free throw line for a one and one and a chance for Kane to come through one more time.
I was sure it was going to happen. The great Gary Kane was going to come to the rescue. It seemed like the obvious script.
It did not happen, though. Kane never got the chance.
Butte High got the ball back for one last desperate heave, and a halfcourt shot by Curtis Smith was no good.
“It doesn’t hurt any more, but I still see it in my dreams,” Kane told me late in 2020. “The one that mattered we lost. That’s the reality of life. That’s how it is.”
I cannot see it in my dreams because the game was not on television. But I can still hear it, and it still hurts.
And I was an eighth grader at Butte Central at the time. I did not personally know a single player on the Butte High team, and I am not a close relation to the coach.
At the time, I had never even met Coach Foley, though a few years later he cut me from the Butte High basketball team.
Sure, Butte High was only five years removed from Mickey Tuttle sitting victoriously on the rim after winning the championship in Missoula.
We figured the Bulldogs would be back to the title game again, and they were the next year. Again, Butte High fell on the final Saturday night of the season, and the Bulldogs are still waiting for their first state title since 1984.
Even without the title, I will proclaim until my last dying breath that the 1989 team was Butte High’s best, and Kane was the best player on that team.
According to newspaper accounts, Kane averaged 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists per game. Pat Kearney, the late Butte historian, compiled the Bulldog stats and had Kane averaging 21.5 points per game that season.
Whether it is 23 or 21.5, it is a school record.
“Gary is one of the finest shooters I’ve seen in Montana high school basketball in the 11 years I’ve been in the state,” University of Montana coach Stew Morrill said when he signed Kane that April.
Kane went on to a career of injuries and what might have been with the Grizzlies. The high point came when he scored 15 points against the great UNVL team in the 1991 NCAA Tournament.
The Grizzly tournament appearance was do in large part to an outstanding freshman season by Kane, who was legendary for the hard work he put in off the court.
Of course, not everyone agrees with me about Kane.
One old timer literally pounded his fist on a table as he explained to me the great Bob O’Billovich and his team would easily wax Kane and the boys if they could somehow play each other.
I was not really equipped to counter that argument because my parents were barely even old enough to remember when O’Billovich and the Bulldogs defended their state title with a 57-51 win over Missoula in Bozeman on March 8, 1958.
The next day, Butte High’s championship team photo appeared on the front page of The Montana Standard below a headline that read, “Ike Urges More Aid to Jobless.”
O’Billovich is probably the greatest all-around Butte High Bulldog of all time.
Actually, there is no probably about it. O’Billovich went on to star in three sports at the University of Montana. He is a Canadian Football League legend.
He is a Butte legend.
With all due respect to O’Billovich, and with my strong generational bias, however, my money is on the 1989 team. My money will always be on Gary Kane.
After all, O’Billovich never did anything to make me look fondly on that junior high classroom.