BOZEMAN – On a Saturday evening half a state away from home, Cary Finberg is remembering his brother.
Craig Finberg, Cary’s elder brother and mentor, died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. His nickname “Finny” is known to just about anybody who spends time in Columbia Falls, and many who don’t. Finny is a basketball legend in the Treasure State and now Cary is becoming a legend in his own right. Their sister, Cathy, was a star basketball player as well. The Finbergs – they are Montana basketball.
It is a little more than two hours before tipoff at the Class A boys basketball state title game. Cary Finberg is trying to explain his remarkable success as head coach of the boys team at Columbia Falls High School and he inevitably keeps talking about his brother.
As a kid, he looked up to Craig, who was a star at Columbia Falls High School and later at Montana State University. But specifically, right now, Cary is discussing his brother’s impact on his coaching career. He was an assistant underneath Finny at Dillon early in his career.
This evening, Cary is dressed in a dark suit. He is jovial and calm, but when the game begins he will become a man of fire. On the sidelines, he is all passion and flame, intertwined with smart X’s and O’s.
Interestingly enough, the team Cary is about to face – Dillon – is coached by Terry Thomas, who was also on the staff under Finny when the Beavers won the state title in 1990. That was Cary’s first taste of winning a state championship. But he has tasted it many times since – four, to be exact. His only loss in five appearances as head coach came to Dillon in 2009. Under Thomas, Dillon has made it to three title games in the last five years, winning two.
“That kind of shows you how fortunate I was to be on the staff at that time,” Cary says. “When I first started coaching, I couldn’t have had two better guys to learn from.”
When the game begins, Cary’s Wildcats appear to be unstoppable, jumping out to a 20-point lead in the first half. They end up defeating the Beavers 55-43, capping off a dominant run through the tournament. Cary’s fourth title comes where he won his third, at Montana State University. His brother is in MSU’s athletic hall of fame.
From Dillon to Bozeman to Columbia Falls, the Finbergs have left their marks on Montana’s basketball community. And Cary’s mark only continues to grow.
Since taking over the Columbia Falls boys basketball program in 1996, Cary Finberg has led the Wildcats to the only four state titles in school history. Columbia Falls lost in its three previous championship appearances in the 1960s and 70s, including in 1975 when a Finny-led team lost to Poplar 80-78.
“Cary’s a lot better coach than I was,” said Ralph Johnson, who coached those early state runnerups. “Craig was too.”
Finberg’s Wildcats have played in the title game five times in the last nine years, going 4-1. The only loss was that 2009 defeat to Dillon. In their four championship seasons, the Wildcats’ record is a combined 80-13. Last year, when they finished third, their record was 21-3. Finberg has 221 career victories.
Many observers are calling this year’s team Finberg’s best. Before the title game, Johnson said “if they win the state championship tonight, then maybe they can be called the best ever.” They won, of course.
Tall, talented and efficient, the Wildcats finished the season 22-1, the best record in school history. The one loss was to Polson 59-52 on the road Feb. 5. The Wildcats’ average margin of victory was more than 20 points per game and their three wins at state were by a combined 52 points.
“From the start of the year to the end of the year, this has been probably the most dominant team,” Finberg said. “We knew we were going to be pretty good. Maybe not this good.”
Senior Nick Emerson, a 6-5 point guard, was the biggest star, but the team’s foremost strength was its depth. Finberg never had to hesitate going to his bench, where a lineup of athletic 6-footers gave him multiple rotation options. One fan, who has followed the program for five decades, called this team “special, very special.”
When senior forward Kaleb Johnson, one of the team’s top scorers and rebounders, went down with an ACL injury in the first round of the state tournament, the loss would have sunk many teams. But the Wildcats just kept sending talent onto the floor and never missed a beat. The players are ready to go, no matter where they sit on the bench, because Finberg makes sure they’re ready to go.
“He’s definitely very inspirational,” said Johnson, who dribbled the clock out in Columbia Falls’ state title victory after Finberg put him in for the final 13.8 seconds. “I look at him as one of the role models in my life. I just appreciate everything’s he’s done for me.”
Finberg believes in family traditions. Like his older siblings Craig and Cathy, Finberg was an all-state basketball player in high school and went on to play in college at University of Montana Western. Then he followed his brother’s coaching footsteps and has even kept the family bar alive. He is the owner of the Columbia Bar in downtown Columbia Falls.
Finberg also believes in Columbia Falls basketball and his success has created a lot of other believers across the state. But the believers that matter most to him are in his locker room.
“Playing for coach Finberg,” senior Chris King said, “it’s quite the dream.”
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