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Krystkowiak's road out of Shelby, Montana

Published May 12, 2011 8:46 am

Utes coach shaped by a devastating, dramatic childhood.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The coach sat quietly in a bakery near his new office last week, taking in the tale of a young basketball player: There was a broken home, strained relationships with parents, basketball as an escape.

Larry Krystkowiak got goose bumps as he listened to his recruit speak. The coach already knew the story.

Suddenly, the man charged with saving University of Utah men's basketball was a young player himself. He was back in Shelby, Mont., spending as much time as possible away from home, escaping to friends' houses to play. Then, he was older, bitter and confused, with a mother who was dead and a father who might as well have been. He hadn't even been able to escape his past on the basketball court.

It shaped him, this road out of Shelby, into a coach with an intensity that must not be mistaken for anger, and a story that would seem sad, if not for Krystkowiak's insistence that it isn't.

Sitting in that little bakery near campus, Krystkowiak let the recruit finish his story. Then it was the coach's turn.

"You know what?" he said. "Let me tell you about mine."

Losing his biggest fan

Helen Krystkowiak wasn't just Larry's biggest fan; in those early days, she was his only fan. She took him to practices and hung out in gyms.

When Larry was 8 years old, Helen died of Hodgkin's disease.

Larry's father, a railroad worker, was usually gone. Only once, that Larry remembers, did Bernard Krystkowiak see him play basketball. The son saw his father shadowing a doorway at Shelby. That night, though, Larry went home and his father asked, "How was the game?"

This was a ruse, Larry later realized, meant to mislead Larry's stepmother, Rosalie, a traditionalist with strict rules and, in Larry's mind, outdated ways of parenting. She battled with Larry over sports. She insisted he focus on academics instead. Basketball, she preached, was no way to make a living.

"It was never really about being pro or not," Larry said, "it was about I just wanted to play."

It boiled over one evening at dinner. Larry had a girlfriend and, Rosalie said, she was a troublemaker. That meant Larry shouldn't play basketball anymore.

They argued. Rosalie swirled the white wine in her glass while she and Larry shouted.

Finally, she hurled the wine into Larry's face. He was 15.

Larry was taken away. He thought he was going to a foster home.

More than 200 miles away in Missoula, Larry's brother Bernie was starting his own life. He had a wife, Marla. They lived quietly, on the edge of town, as he, too, worked on the rails.

Nine years older than Larry, Bernie was already estranged from his little brother and his father and Rosalie. Then the phone rang.

"[Larry] wasn't supposed to contact me at all," said Bernie, "then I get the call from him one day wanting to know if he can move to Missoula and live with us."

Bernie became Larry's biggest advocate. He was the father figure as Bernard faded away. Since leaving Shelby, Larry has seen his father only a handful of times.

Bernie enrolled his brother at Big Sky High School. As a junior, already 6-foot-7, Larry became a quiet, unassuming star.

By his senior year, Larry was a force and was being recruited from schools far away from Missoula. But he stayed to play for Mike Montgomery, now the head coach at California. He would become the greatest player in Grizzlies history, the only three-time MVP of the Big Sky Conference. His No. 42 jersey hangs in a glass case. His career has always seemed to revolve around a Montana axis, first as a player, then an assistant coach and, later, the head coach. Always coming, then going.

Reaching his limit

Mama's boy!

The chants hailed down on Larry and his Montana Grizzlies. Nevada was in the process of a thoroughly satisfying beatdown of the Grizzlies. The Sports Illustrated story on him had come out not much earlier, on Feb. 4, 1985. It was all in there. Helen's death, the impossible relationship with Rosalie.

Larry was a tremendous power forward, long, with sharp elbows and a soft touch. And he backed down from no one.

Pete Hasquet, one of his closest friends from Shelby, now living in Missoula, compared Larry as a player to Jerry Sloan, whom he would later play for with the Utah Jazz.

"The reason I watched Sloan when I was a kid, was because there was always going to be a fight, or something really close to a fight," said Hasquet, now a high school administrator in Missoula. "Larry was that kind of player."

But Larry's volcanic past made him bitter. He visited therapists. The first time he saw his father after leaving Shelby was two or three years later, on a visit to his hometown for the fair. As Larry and Hasquet pulled into town, Larry shouted, "Hey, stop! That's my dad."

Larry leapt from the car and yelled across the road to a figure walking away.

"Hey, Dad!" he shouted.

Bernard kept walking and never turned around.

This was all raging inside of Larry as he pounded against Nevada's players, leading the Grizzlies, but, seemingly, still not doing enough.

Mama's boy!

Then, the game ended, a Grizzlies loss, and as fans filed out, one stood at the top of the stairs and continued to berate Larry. He doesn't remember now what the fan said, but it, too, slashed at Larry's personal life. He snapped.

Larry sprinted up the stairs to the doorway. By the time he got there, the heckler was gone.

"I wasn't totally surprised by it," said Bill Schwanke, the longtime radio voice of the Grizzlies. "Any human being can only take so much."

Immense intensity

It's not anger.

Friends and former players insist Larry Krystkowiak is not an angry man. He saw his father briefly for a family lunch last summer. It was cordial, and he has accepted that he will not have a relationship with the man who hid behind a doorjamb, curious to see his son play basketball.

It's intensity. As a coach, both at Montana and for one year with the Milwaukee Bucks, Krystkowiak stalked the sidelines, using his 6-foot-9 frame to intimidate referees.

At Montana, if he punished a player with extra workouts, Krystkowiak ran the drills along with him. He can't play the game anymore because of the devastating knee injury he suffered as an NBA player with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1989, but damned if he can't motivate kids with good knees to play it better.

"I was surprised when he became the head coach [at Montana] how demanding he was of his players," Schwanke said. "Then when I started thinking about it, the way he played, and the expectations he had for his teammates to play the same way, I shouldn't have been surprised at all."

After the Griz lost at Missouri in 2004, Krystkowiak's first of two years coaching at Montana, he got so frustrated watching game film on the team bus that he stood up, swore loudly, jerked the cassette from the player, and smashed it against the bus floor.

That same season, after Montana lost on a last-second turnover at home against Santa Clara, Krystkowiak stormed off the court, grabbed a folding chair and threw it into a big, metal garage door. The sound carried back down the hall and into the arena.

"That was the loudest thing I ever heard," said Andrew Strait, then a freshman center on the team.

It worked. In two years, Krystkowiak's Montana teams made two trips to the NCAA Tournament, including in 2006 when Montana upset No. 5 seed Nevada in the first round in Salt Lake City. It was on that trip, in the bowels of the Huntsman Center, that Krystkowiak first crossed paths with Utah athletic director Chris Hill. A year later, Hill tried to hire Krystkowiak. Four years after that, the Ute A.D. finally got his man.

Wearing a new hat

Bernie wants a Utes hat. Larry Krystkowiak's brother has one from each of his brother's previous stops, and they've piled up. But now, he is the biggest Utah basketball fan you will find.

Other fans, he said, don't understand what a good hire his brother is. He reads the Utah papers, blogs and message boards. He knows some people wanted a splashier hire.

"They're going to be so pleased and impressed," Bernie said. "Just watch and observe. We saw it here."

That's the part of Larry Krystkowiak's life that is still developing. The personal stuff, though, is unlikely to change. He doesn't expect, or really want, a reconciliation with his father.

"I kept thinking there's more to this story," Hasquet said. "It doesn't make sense, there must be more to the story. Here we are, 30 years later, there's nothing more to the story."

In the month since Krystkowiak was hired to replace Jim Boylen, he has busied himself trying to fill a depleted roster. His office is barren, with only a few photos of his wife, Jan, and their five kids.

It would be nice, Krystkowiak said, if his kids could have a relationship with their grandfather, but it's OK that they won't. He has lessons to teach them from other places.

He knows what a family should be from when he would escape his Shelby home and go to the Hasquets, where there were 15 children and boxing gloves. Krystkowiak saw the Hasquet boys settle things by boxing, so he has a set in his own home: one blue, one red. Any dispute among his three sons is usually settled quickly, Krystkowiak said, often ends in laughter and doesn't drag into perpetuity.

Krystkowiak likes things to be settled. He's a perfectionist, perhaps the best thing he got from his father, he said. He learned from the old man that there's a right way to mow the lawn, and a right way to wash the dishes.

But some things, no matter how hard you try, no matter the number of therapy sessions or chased hecklers, can't be made perfect.

But they can be made better.

"I just want them to understand," Krystkowiak said, "that their coach didn't come from a traditional background either."

And he's happy to tell them the story.

boram@sltrib.com

Twitter: @oramb —

Larry Krystkowiak file

Age • 46

Hometown • Shelby, Mont.

College • Montana

• Three-time Big Sky Conference MVP

• Grizzlies' all-time leader in points (2,017) and rebounds (1,105)

• Second-round draft pick in the 1986 NBA Draft

In the NBA • Played for the San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers —

Krystkowiak's coaching career

1998-00 • Montana; assistant coach

2001-02 • Old Dominion; assistant coach

2003-04 • Idaho Stampede; head coach (37-16)

2004-06 • Montana; head coach (42-20)

2006-07 • Milwaukee Bucks; assistant coach

2007-08 • Milwaukee Bucks; head coach (31-69)

2010-11 • New Jersey Nets; assistant coach