Gary Fineske shows off the championship trophy on the plane ride home after the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA finals.
Gary Fineske likes to say he knows Jason Kidd’s feet like the back of his hand.
The Toledo native is the massage therapist for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. Fineske is one of those behind-the-scenes people whose special talents are only appreciated by star athletes like Kidd.
The Libbey High School graduate earned the nickname “Fingers” for his ability to work out soreness, kinks, and other maladies NBA players endure during a grueling season.
“I’m kind of a background person,” Fineske said. “You won’t see me cheering and yelling. I’ve gone to over 1,100 basketball games, and they haven’t put me in once.
“But I have the chance to help people with pain. There’s a lot of self-satisfaction with that. I let everyone else bask in the glory.”
Led by veterans Kidd and forward Dirk Nowitzki, the upstart Mavericks upset the Miami Heat to win the 2011 NBA title earlier this month.
Fineske turned 65 the day the Mavericks celebrated their title with a parade in Dallas.
“I was part of it as much as I really could be,” Fineske said. “I really care about the players. I raised the trophy on the plane. No one expected it. I am so proud of those guys and so happy for them because I know how hard they work.”
During a typical basketball season, Fineske will perform more than 400 massages that last anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. Kidd, a 16-year pro, received more than 100 massages. Most lasted about 50 minutes before each game.
Fineske is on call 24 hours a day.
“It’s concern for the individual,” he said. “The biggest thing with my job is that I make myself available 24-7. Several times I’ve ended up working at 3 in the morning. If I get called right now and a player says his back is killing him, I’ll go.”
Fineske can be spotted sitting behind the Mavericks’ bench waiting to be called upon at a moment’s notice.
“I might be rubbing necks or getting hot packs for the players,” he said. “I will go into the huddle and stretch out a calf or whatever they need during a timeout.”
Fineske said massage therapy is about restoring muscle memory.
“I’m drenched with sweat when I’m done. I put a lot of effort into it,” he said. “But I have fun with the players. You can’t get any better than that.”
Fineske sometimes gives massages to the Mavericks’ outspoken owner Mark Cuban. He said he offers massages to anyone in the organization.
“That includes flight attendants,” he said.
The gray-haired and sturdily built therapist said Kidd and Tyson Chandler were the players most often on his table.
“Other players wanted just short quick loosening work or lotions applied before taking the court,” Fineske said. “Then there is the staff. Coach Rick Carlisle gets 25 or more massages in a season. Others just come to me for shoulder or neck problems.”
Kidd told the Dallas Morning News during the playoffs that Fineske might be the team’s real MVP.
“It’s just a light rub where it gets my joints going,” Kidd told the newspaper. “It’s just an overhaul of moving the body parts. It’s almost like I’m being stretched, but it’s just more or less to get the blood flowing. Then I get taped, and I’m ready to go.”
Fingers do the talking
Fineske said Nowitzki, who was the MVP of the NBA finals, came up with the nickname, “Fingers.”
“I hate the nickname,” Fineske said. “But it is the best thing that has happened to me. It makes me approachable.”
The Mavs pay Fineske a base salary, but he also gets tips from the players.
He got into massage therapy when a friend of his took it up as a profession in the 1980s. With a background in body building and personal training, Fineske found it to be a natural fit.
“People would say I looked like a massage therapist, implying I looked like I knew what I was doing,” he said. “But it was not that popular back then.”
He started working at the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, which he called “world famous.”
One day he massaged a politician who was then running for governor of Texas.
“George W. Bush came in for a chair massage,” Fineske said. “His dad was president at the time. They had a bunch of security in the lobby. His wife, Laura, would schedule appointments, and I gave him a couple chair massages.
“I just remember he had the heaviest head I ever felt in my life.”
Fineske was then hired to work on referees from the World Cup when it came to Dallas in 1994. That led to a stint with a Major League Soccer team then called the Dallas Burn. He was the massage therapist for that team for five seasons.
Fineske then connected with the Mavs when their coaches came to the Tom Landry Center and he became the NBA’s full-time massage therapist in 2000.
Extravagant NBA lifestyle
Ironically, Fineske said he’s not a big basketball fan. But he said he loves the players and the travel.
“It is really nice. We stay at the plushest hotels, and everyone has their own room,” he said. “Everyone gets a per diem [about $90 per day]. We stay at hotels that are $500 per night. It’s just something that comes with the job.”
He said the players will eat at fancy restaurants, but he said he keeps it simple.
“The restaurants have the best prime rib and filet mignon,” he said. “But I’ll go to a restaurant across the street that serves lentil soup. I stay in my hotel and eat energy bars.”
The team travels by private jet. Mark Cuban owns two airplanes — a 757 and a 767. “We travel first class,” Fineske said.
But he said the job is very difficult with crazy hours, and that it’s not uncommon to be eating spaghetti on an airplane at 2 in the morning.
“You can be in and out of a state in 19 hours,” Fineske said. “It’s the toughest schedule, even for rugged players in their 20s. It’s very taxing.”
But Fineske said he has never met a player that he didn’t like.
“To me they are all great, but I’m there to help them, so maybe that’s why I’m treated so nice,” he said. “It might be the way I approach it.”
Fineske called Kidd the “nicest, most polite individual” he has ever met.
“I worked on him so much, and he thanked me every time,” Fineske said.
Fineske, who now speaks with a slight southern accent, grew up in South Toledo and played football at Jones Junior High School. He then was an offensive and defensive lineman for Libbey before graduating in 1964. He walked on at the University of Toledo and eventually earned a scholarship. He redshirted as a sophomore before enlisting in the Army. He served a tour of duty for one year in Vietnam.
In 1967, Fineske won the Mr. Toledo bodybuilding title.
“That helped to lay a foundation where I had some strength and muscle for when I went into massage,” he said.
He had been stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and decided to settle in that state after graduating form Bowling Green State University. He met his wife, Dolorous, in Texas, and they raised three sons, Chad, Scott, and Kevin there.
Aside from his duties with the Mavericks, he owns a business that offers massage therapy for corporations and individuals.
Fineske returns to Toledo occasionally and came back last year to make what may be his last tour of Libbey High School.
“I wish that a miracle could happen to save the school,” he said. “There is so much history and memories associated with that school.”
Celebrating an NBA title
Fineske credited Carlisle for coming up with a terrific game plan to beat the Heat.
“Coach Carlisle is a genius,” Fineske said. “We just kept wearing them down. For us to achieve what they did was monumental.”
But in his typical laidback way, Fineske watched the celebration in the background.
“There were a lot of people crying. I didn’t go up on stage,” Fineske said. “When we got back in the locker room there must have been 15 bottles of champagne shot up in the air. The fumes were so strong I’m glad no one lit a match. We would have all went up in flames.”
Fineske said he’s not sure if he will get a championship ring or replica.
“I joke that the only ring I’ll get is the ring on a Cuban cigar,” he said. “Mark Cuban has been really nice. But you have to cut it off somewhere. It would be great if I get one. But if not, it’s been great going on the ride.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6354.