Looking back on a basketball career filled with greatness and heartache
By Bill Foley
It’s not that Gary Kane doesn’t like people. He just prefers the company of fish.
That is why quarantining during the coronavirus pandemic has been no big deal for the 1989 Butte High graduate. He has been trying to quarantine for years.
“I don’t want to be around people,” Kane said last week from his home just outside Manhattan, Montana. “I’m kind of a hermit.”
Kane would much rather be on the river or hiking on a mountain than shining in the spotlight. The modest and humble Kane has always been like that. He was just so good at basketball that the spotlight found him.
On March 15, 1991, every television in the Mining City, and perhaps the entire state, was on Kane as the University of Montana freshman sank three 3-pointers and scored 15 points to lead the Grizzlies against defending national champion Nevada Las Vegas in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
In addition to the huge television audience, 13,367 fans watched the game live in Tucson, Arizona as the Runnin’ Rebels beat the Grizzlies 99-65.
The 34-point loss was not a large margin when playing UNVL, which was thought to be one of the greatest teams of all time before the Rebels were upset by Duke in the Final Four.
The UNLV roster included Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon, Greg Anthony, George Ackles and Anderson Hunt, and nobody gave the Grizzlies a chance. USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan made Montana a billion-to-one shot to win the NCAA tournament.
“People talk about David and Goliath,” Grizzly guard Roger Fasting was quoted as saying in The Los Angeles Times. “Well, I’d say we’re David’s younger brother and they’re Goliath’s dad.”
When the game was played, though, Kane was a player who looked like he belonged during his 30 minutes of action off the bench.
The redshirt freshman did not look one bit intimidated as he launched shots from beyond NBA range. Butte and Montana were proud of the guard LA Times writer Gene Wojciechowski described as “baby-faced” and with “one of those ‘Up With People’ smiles.”
Nearly 30 years later, they still are. Kane, on the other hand, does not talk much about that game.
“I don’t think about it much anymore,” he said of playing the Rebels. “When I think about it is when I’m watching an NBA game and I see Greg Anthony announcing. He was the point guard then. Those things are the things that harken me back more than anything.”
The game capped a dream season for Kane and the Grizzlies, who Grizzlies broke a drought of 12 years without a Big Sky Conference title and 15 years without an NCAA tournament appearance.
Kane eclipsed Grizzly Hall of Famer Micheal Ray Richardson’s school freshman record of 218 points. Kane scored 355 points on the season, shooting 46 percent from the field and led the team with 68 3-pointers in 31 games.
Richardson, who’s record-setting season came in 1974-75, took his talent to the New York Knicks. Surely, the 1990-91 season was the start of a similar path for Kane.
Or so we thought.
‘I knew it was in’
March 16, 1989 was St. Urho’s Day in the Mining City. It was also the day that Kane announced that he was heading to the University of Montana.
This was reason to celebrate in Missoula because the Grizzlies were getting, by all accounts, the best high school basketball player in Montana.
While the announcement came less than two weeks after Kane’s Butte High Bulldogs suffered a heartbreaking 53-50 loss to Kalispell in the Class AA State championship game in Billings, Kane was coming off a remarkable season.
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.
During the 1988-89 season, Kane became the only Bulldog player to average more than 20 points in a season. Don Rae’s 18.7 points per game in 1961 and Scott Salo’s 18.3 in 1974 were the closest Bulldogs to doing the same.
“If you look at Gary’s record, I’m not sure Butte’s ever had a better basketball player,” said Todd Ericson, a first-team All-State basketball player for the Bulldogs in 1988 and 1989.
Kane was named the Gatorade Circle of Champions Montana High School Basketball Player of the Year. He was named the Montana Player of the Year by the USA Today.
In 2016, MTN Sports named Kane one of Montana’s top 50 high school basketball players of all time.
Ericson pointed out that, even in his Butte High days, Kane could and would shoot from anywhere. He sank 43 3-pointers that senior season, and many of them were from well behind the 3-point line.
“He probably had the range that was far greater than what you would expect to have in high school in the late 80s,” Ericson said. “He’d shoot if from the range before that was cool, like Steph Curry and the guys do today.”
That fearless mentality bailed out the Bulldogs in the first round of the 1989 state tournament. Butte High and Great Falls Russell were tied at 55, with a few seconds left.
An assistant coach said to give the ball to Ericson, who excelled at driving to the hoop for a bucket or dishing it off. Instead, Foley called for the ball to go to Kane.
“I said we came here on the back of Gary,” Foley said. “If we’re leaving, we’re leaving with him.”
It proved to be the right move. Ericson inbounded the ball to Fritz Daily, who swung it to Kane. Kane dribbled a few steps closer and launched a three that swished at the buzzer. Bulldogs win 58-55.
“All I wanted from him was to go to the basket and make the shot or get fouled,” Foley said. “He hoists up a 3-pointer. The ball wasn’t even halfway to the basket, and I see No. 30 running down the tunnel.”
As the coach remembers, Kane started his exit from the Billings Metra arena before the ball hit the net. Foley asked his star player about that after the game.
“He said, ‘Coach, don’t worry. I knew it was in,’” Foley said.
Kane scored 16 points in that closer-than-expected opener. Ericson tossed in 17, while Kane scored 13 and Cory Dunstan netted 10 the next night as the Bulldogs advanced to the title game with a 65-52 win over Missoula Big Sky.
In the championship game, Kane scored 25 of Butte High’s 50 points. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, it wasn’t enough.
“It doesn’t hurt any more, but I still see it in my dreams,” Kane said. “The one that mattered we lost. That’s the reality of life. That’s how it is.”
The loss did not put a damper on the signing for the Grizzlies. Montana coach Stew Morrill marveled at the talent of Kane when he officially signed with the Griz in April. Particularly, the Grizzly coach liked Kane’s sweet jump shot.
“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,” Morrill said.
Kane, who was the first Butte player to sign with the Grizzlies since Mike Judd in the 1960s, could shoot from anywhere. He pointed out to Bruce Sayler, then a writer for The Montana Standard, that he was following in the footsteps of his cousin, Bob O’Billovich.
O’Billovich is a legend at Butte High and the University of Montana. At the time, he was the coach of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Kane was also excited to join Ericson, his cousin Kyle Mirich, and his buddies Chad Lembke and Lance Allen. Erickson, Mirich, Lembke and Allen went onto stellar careers on the Grizzly football team.
‘These kids can’t play for us’
Ericson was an All-American safety for the Grizzlies. He went to training camp with the Indianapolis Colts before settling into his life in Sammamish, Washington.
“Basketball was definitely my first love,” Ericson said. “I was small. I was a late bloomer. I grew into football later on.”
Kane and Ericson made a name for themselves on the hardwood at an early age. They caught Foley’s attention when they were playing at East Junior High School, and they did not exactly leave a strong first impression.
“We heard the rumors about these kids coming from East, Ericson and Kane,” Foley said. “So, we went to one of their games against West.”
Foley watched the game with Chuck Uggetti, his longtime assistant with the Bulldogs.
“Ericson, I swear, wasn’t 5 feet tall,” Foley said. “And there wasn’t a line Kane didn’t trip over. I said to Chuck, ‘These kids play for us?’ That shows you what coaches know.”
In all, Kane and Ericson went on to be All-State players two seasons. Kane was second team as a junior and first team as a senior. Ericson was first team his last two years, even though he came off the bench as a junior.
Looking back, Foley said his mistake with those two was that he did not play them sooner. The coach liked to keep players with their class, for the most part. He figured they’d have success as freshmen and sophomores before continuing at the varsity level.
“With Gary Kane and Todd Ericson, I blew it,” Foley said. “They should have been starting on varsity as sophomores.”
Ericson, who started at quarterback for the Bulldogs, was good at any sport he tried. Kane was always all about the basketball.
“I wasn’t that guy. I played one sport,” Kane said. “I chose to play one sport because I knew that was where my bread was buttered. I don’t regret it at all. I probably would have got hurt playing football. I didn’t have money at all. Basketball was my meal ticket.”
Kane almost went out for track. He even talked to coach Charlie Merrifield. The hangup was that Kane, who reached 6 feet, 4 inches by his senior year, was going to use track to work on his jumping for basketball. He told Merrifield he only wanted to do the high jump and long jump.
“He said, ‘You’ll run the 400. That’s how it will work,’” Kane remembered. “I said, ‘Then I’m not going out for it.’ I did what I needed to do for me.”
Kane’s parents divorced when he was very young. He lived with his mother, Ruby Backer, while his father, Gary, lived in Charlo and Red Lodge. So, Gary’s workout partner was usually his grandfather, Harry “Rube” Pierce. He was a custodian at East Junior High, so Gary had access to the gym.
“He spent so much time in the gym,” Ericson said. “He dedicated himself to the sport far greater than 99 percent of the people do. He developed himself into a very good shooter.”
Kane had a workout video by Indiana star Steve Alford, and he followed it strictly, and then some.
“It was a 50-minute workout that I turned into 2 hours because I added a lot of ball handling,” Kane said. “I did that every night with my grandpa at East Junior High or Emerson.”
That work ethic just might have been Kane’s best asset. It was also his worst enemy.
Kane’s years at UM after that fantastic freshman season were, for the most part, frustrating and painful.
He did not get off to a great start to his sophomore season because he was in a lot of pain. He had pain in his groin and pain in his abdomen. The unexplained pain was hard for Grizzly fans to wrap their heads around.
“I went to five hernia specialists, and none of them said I had a hernia,” Kane said. “It was interesting to me as a young man watching that theory machine bloom. I had people tell me it was all in my head.”
The pain, though, was very much real.
“I was walking through campus one time and I fell to my knees because I had such bad pain shooting through my groin and abdomen,” Kane said.
He played in just 16 games that season, and he couldn’t buy a bucket. He shot just 32 percent from the field and made just 13 threes, even though the Grizzlies defended their Big Sky regular season and tournament titles to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
Kane scored five points in 11 minutes as the Grizzlies fell 78-68 to Florida State in Boise, Idaho.
“The thing that was unique about my (injury) was that no scans could detect anything, which was really interesting to me,” Kane said.
As it turns out, Kane did not have a hernia. He had three of them.
“I had three tears throughout my abdomen,” Kane said.
Kane finally had the hernia repaired, but he was never the same. Playing and working through the pain led to leg problems, and Kane only played in 16 games during his junior season in 1992-93.
He also had a long bout with an Epstein-Barr virus that held him back.
After going 23-8 and 27-4, the Grizzlies slipped to 17-11 during Kane’s junior season.
Kane rebounded as a senior, playing in 25 games. He made 46 3-pointers as he started to resemble the Gary Kane of old.
In late January of 1994, now-retired Missoulian writer Kim Briggeman wrote a feature story on Kane. The headline read, “Kane’s back to his three-dealin’ ways for the Griz.”
“I had a lot of leg trouble that people didn’t really know about,” Kane told Briggeman, who covered the Grizzlies throughout his UM career. “It stemmed from when I came back from the hernia surgery (three Decembers ago). I had a horrible time with my legs for two years because they got so weak when I had that time off.”
The biggest issue was Kane himself. If there is such a thing as working too hard, then that is what he did.
“He’s the only kid I’ve ever seen in my life that got injured because he worked so hard,” Foley said.
It was just the way Kane was wired.
“I trained really hard. I still train hard. It keeps me sane,” he said. “I thought basketball was the reason I did it. But I emerged out of that and realized that’s what makes you feel alive.”
Being sidelined with an injury was hard for Kane to deal with. He called it his “ticket to despair.”
“I was really young and slow to mature in a lot of ways,” Kane said. “I wasn’t quite equipped at the time to deal with the challenges I was faced with. I dealt with a lot of depression and withdrawal.”
All the injuries eventually turned Kane’s career into a case of what might have been.
While he was excelling on the football field in Missoula, Ericson watched his old teammate go through tough times on the hardwood.
“His college career got short sighted,” Ericson said. “He was on track to be a high-level college basketball player.”
Morrill parlayed the Grizzly run to the NCAA tournament in 1991 into a job at Colorado State. Blaine Taylor, the assistant who recruited Kane to UM, took over.
In his piece in the Missoulian, Briggeman wrote about the possibility of being given a start on Senior Night. Kane, who people expected to start two or three seasons after that freshman campaign, came off the bench in his years with the Grizzlies. Kane scoffed at the idea. “I don’t want a charity start,” he told the writer.
Taylor, though, did give Kane a start, and in a big game, too.
“He started me against the Cats in Bozeman, which I appreciated,” Kane said. The Grizzlies beat Montana State 70-55 in the last game of the regular season.
The next week, UM fell 74-63 to Idaho at the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Boise, the sight of their NCAA game against Florida State two years earlier.
The Grizzlies ended the season at 19-9, and Kane’s career was over. In his four years, the Grizzlies compiled a record of 86-32. The Griz also went 19-9 during Kane’s redshirt season.
While he would have loved to have had a Hall of Fame Career, Kane said he now looks back at his days as a Grizzly quite fondly.
“Retrospectively, I’ve had a better perspective with the role I had,” he said. “I guess I came to peace with it. That was a pride issue for me. I played a lot of minutes and a lot of important issues. Blaine helped me see it and I learned it myself. It was humbling. It was good for me to play a role and not be a player who carried a team. I don’t think at the Big Sky level I was equipped to do that.”
The Grizzlies clearly appreciated Kane and all he went through to contribute to the team. In 1994, he received Montana’s Naseby Rhinehard Award as the Grizzlies’ most inspirational player.
Before the Grizzlies’ 2015 season opener, Kane returned to Missoula as the back-to-back Grizzly Big Sky Conference champions were honored. That includes current Grizzly coach Travis DeCuire.
The Grizzlies beat Boise State 74-72, and Kane and the boys were introduced to the Montana crowd.
“They carted us out at halftime and announced our old asses,” Kane said with a laugh. “It was really cool to see those guys. That was fun.”
Back to school
Kane left UM with a business degree, but that wasn’t his calling. He learned that when he worked in the insurance business in Polson.
“I was just out of college,” Kane said. “I wasn’t prepared for that job. I was in the process of trying to figure out who the hell I was and define who I was after basketball, and that was not it.”
After a brief stint working as a certified public trainer in Seattle, Kane went back to school.
“I was drawn home and I was drawn back to education,” he said.
Kane earned a degree in English literature and secondary education. He later got a masters in educational leadership from Montana State. He realized that his calling could be education while working with underprivileged children through a federally-funded program in Missoula.
“That’s what I did in the summer when I was playing,” Kane said. “I worked with kids from poverty around Missoula. I found out that I had a good skill set with young people. I was good working with them.”
Kane went to work teaching English to high school seniors, working first in Corvallis. He ended up working several years at Park County High School in Livingston.
Now, Kane works with children while doing custodial evaluations for district court.
“Since 2012, just on my own, been working for myself,” Kane said. “Now I work as little as possible and fish as much as possible.”
Kane met his wife Javanka Voyich, a Livingston native, while at church in Butte. She is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Montana State. Kane, who will turn 50 in February, married Jovanka when he was 33. The couple chose to never have children.
“I’m blessed now,” Kane said. “I have a wonderful wife. I’ve got a good family. I can live in Montana. I’m healthy. I’m grateful.”
He is especially at peace when he is hiking, climbing a mountain or trying to catch a fish. Kane got into fishing as a young boy. He started fly fishing while in Missoula.
“I like big fish and I like (Yellowstone National Park) and their policy of catch and release. It makes for big fish,” Kane said. “The joy I get out of pursuing big fish and then letting them go is out of whack.”
It still hurts
It has been almost 32 years since Kane’s Bulldogs lost the state championship game. The defeat came after Butte High won its first 21 games.
Butte native Bill Epperly’s Braves are the one in that painful 21-1 that left an incomplete legacy for one of Butte’s great teams. Before the Bulldogs fell to the Braves, Butte High beat Kalispell three times, including in the Western AA Divisional tournament a week earlier at the Butte Civic Center.
Butte High’s 1988-89 team was a gritty bunch that worked hard to pull out victories. In addition to Kane, Ericson, Daily and Dunstan, the team included Dave Chamberlin, Scott Hemmert, Marc Kelly, Jasson McNallie, Curtis Smith, Jason Booth, Jay Hackman, Brian Michelotti and Gary Burt.
“We weren’t Hellgate, where they’re blowing out people by 30 and 40 points,” Foley said of the 2019-20 Missoula Hellgate Knights. “We were winning games by 5 and 8 points.”
The key was winning. Butte High always found a way to win. Until the end.
“It’s definitely a hard one to take,” Ericson said of the title game loss. “It’s tough when your only loss the entire way is the championship game. I remember being devastated after it was over, I can tell you that.”
Kane said he has not let that championship loss, which came one week after his 18th birthday, define him or his teammates. He still remembers the words of Butte High assistant coach Dan Lean, a coach Kane said he respected so much.
“He told me, ‘You are blessed to go on, and this won’t be your last game. A lot of guys don’t have that,’” Kane said of Lean, who tragically died Dec. 6, 2017. “That was important.”
The Bulldogs did not hoist the championship trophy, but Kane gave Foley a plaque following that season, and it is still displayed on the coach’s wall. It reads: “To a great coach and friend. You will always be No. 1 in my eyes. No. 30, Gary Kane.”
Foley said the best player he ever coached owes no apologies. Kane, he said, should be proud of what he accomplished.
“He got into athletics to prove to himself,” Foley said. “He didn’t get into it to prove to Montana or anybody else that he was a great player.”
Kane seems to embrace his former coach’s words. On and off the court, Kane said that championship game, as well as the trials and tribulations of his college career, served him well as a learning experience, just like Lean told him it would.
“That game encapsulates an awful lot about life for me,” Kane said. “You can struggle and battle and work as hard as you want. A lot of times you’ll achieve your goal, and other times you won’t. That’s OK.”
That stinging loss actually made Kane feel even better as he helped the Grizzlies beat Idaho 76-68 in the 1991 championship game of the Big Sky Conference tournament at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula. The win sent the Grizzlies to their first NCAA tournament since 1975. It sent them to Arizona for the date with UNLV.
Kane cannot think about that Grizzly win without also thinking about that tough Bulldog loss.
“It was an important loss for me as a human being,” Kane said. “I was bruised by that, but it made winning the first Big Sky that much more sweet. I needed that.” 1 comment