Montana's Larry (Krysko) Krystkowiak swoops into the low post with the look of a mountain man blown into town by the icy wind that whips down through Missoula from nearby Hellgate Canyon. His cheeks are sunken, his nostrils flared, his eyes a little wild. Players from both teams seem to give way when the 6'9" Krystkowiak propels his rawboned 230 pounds toward the glass. "Sometimes I can't believe it's me out there," says Krystkowiak. "It's just too intense for any other situation in life. But I do like it when I get that way for a game."
So do Montana fans. At week's end, their junior power forward had led the Grizzlies to a 17-3 record en route to what will surely be a third straight 20-win season. Krystkowiak (pronounced Kriss-STOVE-ee-ack) was averaging 21.7 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, shooting 60.2% from the field and 82.6% from the line. He had been Montana's leading scorer in every game this season, while never having taken more than 19 shots. Clearly he's the Grizzlies' best player since Micheal Ray Richardson (page 58).
But basketball isn't the only reason Krysko is a folk hero in Missoula. He never refuses an autograph; he participates in the Big Brothers and Sisters of Missoula and maintains a 3.73 average as a business-management major. Yet Krystkowiak is hardly satisfied with himself, on or off the court. His engagingly self-effacing and low-key personality hides the soul of an incurable perfectionist. Better than most people, Krystkowiak knows what it's like never to have been quite good enough.
Krystkowiak spent his early adolescence trying to please his father and stepmother without losing his own identity. At an age when most kids are finding out that they aren't so bad after all, Krystkowiak was led to believe he could do nothing right.
Krystkowiak's mother, Helen, died of cancer when he was eight. Soon thereafter, his father, Bernard, married a woman, Rosalie, with whom Larry and his brother, Bernie, could not get along. "I really tried my best," says Larry. "Even when I was little I knew there are problems children and stepparents have accepting each other. I remember I even watched a Donahue show about it. But no matter what I did, it wasn't good enough for her. Pretty soon my dad treated me the same way."
Bernie, 18-years-old at the time, quickly moved out of the family home in Shelby, Mont. "My stepmother's rules were impossible for someone my age," he says. "I was lucky to be old enough to leave. Larry had a lot more to go through." After Bernie left for Missoula, Larry, who says he idolized his older brother, was forbidden to have any contact with him. "There were a million crazy rules my stepmother convinced my dad I had to follow, like being home by 9 p.m. every night," Larry says. "They told me if I broke them I wouldn't be able to play basketball."
Krystkowiak's mother had always encouraged his participation in sports. "I used to ask my mom when she'd put me to bed if she wanted me to be a professional football player or a professional basketball player," he says. "She said she didn't care as long as I was happy. We used to chase our dreams together."
By the time Krystkowiak was a sophomore at Shelby High, life at home had become unbearable. "My stepmother and I finally had a big blowout, and I just unloaded everything I was feeling," he says. "I remember she said, 'I never want to see you again,' and all I could think was 'This is my chance to get out of here.' "
"Larry was a very confused young man," recalls Shelby High principal Harvey Hawbaker. "He was never in any trouble, got excellent grades, was very much an achiever. But somehow his parents weren't satisfied."
After the blowup, Hawbaker acted as an intermediary in working out an agreement in which Krystkowiak's father signed over guardianship of Larry to Bernie. Larry hasn't spoken to his father or stepmother since the day he left for Missoula five years ago. The wounds are deep. Bernie believes they're the fuel for Larry's relentless athletic and academic drive. "Larry is determined to show my father and stepmother he can succeed at anything he chooses to do," Bernie says.
The thing Larry has excelled at most is basketball. It became his main form of self-expression, although he couldn't share it with his father. "I remember once when I was a sophomore seeing my dad hiding behind a doorway watching me play in a tournament," says Larry. "But when I got home, he asked real gruff, 'Who won?' See, he didn't want her to know he had seen me play."
Larry really blossomed as a player once he moved in with Bernie and his wife, Maria. At Big Sky High in Missoula, he was first-team all-state in both his junior and senior years. Because his grades were excellent, Krystkowiak received recruiting letters from such institutions as Harvard and Yale, but early on he decided to attend Montana. As a Grizzly freshman, he was named the Big Sky Conference's Top Reserve.
Before last season, Krystkowiak's sister-in-law died of leukemia. He channeled his grief into a season in which he averaged 18 points and 10.5 rebounds a game. He also began secluding himself in a quiet corner of the shower room before games and thinking about Maria and his natural mother, visualizing himself excelling and dedicating his performance to them. "The first time I did it, I played so well I knew it couldn't be me," says Krystkowiak. "It had to be a blessing. I just want my play to be a gift to them."
He made honorable mention All-America and honorable mention academic All-America in 1983-84. He also earned an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Trials, where he made the final 32 before being cut.
Through it all, Krystkowiak has shown an ability to transcend seemingly limited talent. With disciplined weight training he has added 30 pounds of muscle to a body that earned him the nickname Bird as a freshman, and he has improved his jumping ability dramatically. Today Krystkowiak is a banger with touch who is ambidextrous around the basket and has an uncanny way of getting off his jump shot against taller players.
Off the court, Krystkowiak spends four or five hours a week with his "little brother," 11-year-old Daniel CoburnSteck, a fourth-grader who's separated from his father. "Larry is an all-around good guy," says Daniel, who is even more low-key than Krystkowiak. "He tells me not to chew snooce [Montana slang for chewing tobacco] or smoke."
Daniel's mother, Debbie, can see the change in her son since he met Krystkowiak a year ago. "Larry is very sensitive and very down-to-earth," she says. "Daniel knows Larry is special, and it's made him feel that maybe he's a little special, too."
As long as Krystkowiak remains in Missoula, he'll pursue excellence in an unassuming way. He lives in a three-bedroom home with Bernie, a railroad brakeman, and a pet piranha named J.R. He also has a penny collection, which he started during "those days in Shelby when I had to be home by nine o'clock."
The NBA is a goal, but a distant one. Most of all, Krystkowiak hopes to reconcile with his father, who lives with Rosalie 165 miles to the east in Great Falls. "I wonder when he opens the Great Falls newspaper and sees my name if he smiles or turns the page real quick," says Krystkowiak. "I hope he smiles."
Krysko has a 21.7-point average though he hasn't taken more than 19 shots in a game.
Thanks to his Big Brother, Daniel now feels special.