Griz Great Larry Krystokowiak Named No. 2 Male Athlete in Big Sky History

By JON KASPER, for the Big Sky Conference

A driver’s education teacher presented Larry Krystkowiak (kriss-koh-VEE-ack) his first college basketball recruiting letter.

Krystkowiak was a 6-foot-4 budding prep star in Shelby, Mont., a small town not far from the Canadian border famous for hosting a heavyweight title fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons in 1923.

“It was delivered by my driver’s ed teacher and coach Tim Blaine,” remembered Krystkowiak, who ranks second on the Big Sky Conference’s list of “50 Greatest Male Athletes.” “It came right at the beginning of my sophomore season. I thought I struck gold.”

The letter came from a Big Sky school – the Weber State Wildcats. Just ponder for a second Krystkowiak working his magic in purple and white, and not the old copper and gold of the Montana Grizzlies.

LarryK001It was in Missoula, Mont., where “Krysko” became a Big Sky legend, starring from 1982-86 under legendary coach Mike Montgomery. Krystkowiak is the only men’s basketball player in league history to earn three MVP awards. The 6-foot-9 forward scored 2,017 career points and pulled down 1,105 rebounds. He ranks second in Big Sky history in scoring and third in rebounds. Three times he was named an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press.

“I feel pretty confident that there weren’t many games I could have played harder,” said Krystkowiak, the head coach of the Utah Utes. “I wasn’t always pretty or athletic; I grinded, I stayed after it. I was never really satisfied with where I was at.”

Missoula is not only where he starred collegiately, but it’s where he finished his high school days, and later returned after an NBA career to coach his alma mater to a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

His road to collegiate and professional success as a player and coach wasn’t always smooth. His mother Helen died of cancer when he was 8. To say he had a strained relationship with his stepmother and father is putting it lightly. He moved to Missoula after his sophomore year to live with his older brother Bernie. The details of Krystkowiak’s youth came to light in a 1985 Sports Illustrated article.

“I was a little young and I shared some things that I probably should not have shared,” Krystkowiak said. It’s always cool to be in Sports Illustrated, but I wasn’t looking for sympathy. I think some think it came across that way.”

Krystkowiak flourished athletically and academically at Missoula’s Big Sky high while living with his brother. His strong grades led to offers from Ivy League schools, as well as other mid-major institutions. His comfort in Missoula was a major factor in selecting Montana.

Larry K2“I’d left Shelby before by junior year, my brother became my guardian, and I was settling in,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do was take on a whole new challenge of finding my way. Between my brother and the friendships I’d developed, combined with a very solid Grizzly program, I wanted to stay home. Plus, it looked like I at least had a spot on the team.’

Krystkowiak, now standing close to 6-8, appeared in 28 games as a freshman in 1982-83, averaging 4.9 points per game. He was named the league’s co-Top Reserve.

“I was pretty darn skinny until the latter part of my sophomore year,” he said. “I was getting bounced around pretty good. The speed of the game was also different. (Coach) Montgomery had a high standard for defense. I was just trying to get on the floor.”

If fans had no idea who he was or how to pronounce his name, that was all about to change. As a sophomore, “Krysko” averaged a double-double, leading the Big Sky in scoring at 18 points and in rebounding at 10.2 per game. He garnered First Team All-Conference honors and his first MVP award. Montana lost by two points to Nevada in the Big Sky Championship Game.

“I didn’t want it to be a one-year deal,” he said. “I was also striving to improve. I share that today with my players. It’s one thing when you are a sophomore and maybe third on the scouting report, but you are not a secret after that. Teams and player figure you out. You have to be significantly better to put up the name numbers. I didn’t want to have a dip and take a step back. I was always grinding, learning how to deal with double teams. I was always trying to please “Monty.”

He played so well as a sophomore that he earned an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Trails, where he rubbed elbows with the likes to Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley. Krystkowiak made it to the final 32, before being cut.

Krystokwiak001“I remember looking through the program, and looking down at Charles Barkley’s bio,” he recalled. “I hung out quite a bit with Jon Koncak and Joe Kliene. I remember telling Charles that I was the only guy no one knew. It was grueling. We practiced three times a day. We played in front of 16,000 at Indiana. Summers were a key ingredient, playing good competition and staying in shape. That led to as much improvement as anything.”

Krystkowiak proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder as a junior, again leading the league in scoring in rebounding at 21.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. The Grizzlies finished the year 22-8, but suffered an upset to Boise State in the first round of the Big Sky Championship.

As a senior, he averaged 22.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, securing his third straight MVP award. But again, he felt the sting of postseason disappointment. The heavy-favored Grizzlies suffered and 82-77 loss to a sub-.500 Montana State team in the 1986 championship in Reno, Nev.

“The only thing, looking back on my career, is I wish we could have been in the (NCAA) postseason,” he said. “We just lost a number of championship games.”

Krystkowiak’s final collegiate game was a home NIT loss to Texas Christian, a contest that he was removed early after believing he had become the Big Sky’s all-time leader scorer. In reality, he ended up two points short of the 2,019 scored by former Weber State standout Bruce Collins.

“It’s a little bit of a sad story,” Krystkowiak said. “I was taken out of the game, got an ovation, and the announcement was made. Over the next couple of days, they looked at all the stat sheets, and I’d come up short. It had never been that important to me as a milestone. I understand that mistakes are made. It’s just fun being mentioned in the same breath as some of those guys.”

Larry K3The Chicago Bulls drafted the 6-9, 220-pounder in the second round with the 28th overall selection of the 1986 NBA Draft, one spot behind future Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman. He was quickly traded to Portland, and three days later shipped to San Antonio, where he played one season. The Spurs dealt him to Milwaukee, where he enjoyed his greatest NBA success, and the biggest disappointment of his career.

Krystkowiak started 77 games for the Bucks during the 1988-90 season, averaging 12.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. In the opening minute of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Pistons, Krystkowiak’s suffered a devastating knee injury. He sat out the following year, and played five more seasons with Milwaukee, Utah, Orlando, Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers. His play was never the same after the injury.

“There are certain things that are out of your control,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason. The only frustrating part about it, is you wonder what if? I wonder what level I could have gotten. I was making improvements. I had reached a point where they told me I was going to be on the All-Star ballot the next year. I had that carrot dangled in front of me. You have to grow up and mature. A lot of positive things happened. I kept going, and never questioned it.”

During his time in the NBA, he was able to soak up the game from coaching legends like Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan. He returned to Montana in 1998 as an assistant coach. After coaching stints at Old Dominion and with the Idaho Stampede of the CBA, he was named Montana’s head basketball coach. In two years with the Grizzlies, he guided his alma mater to back-to-back Big Sky Championships, accomplishing something he was never able to do as a player. In 2006, he led Montana to an upset of No. 5 seed Nevada in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I won a lot of games at Montana, but never got a taste of the NCAA, he said. “That’s why going back and getting a couple of cracks at it was huge. It was bigger than me. It was the whole program. We were able to share that with the fans and former players and stuff.”

Krystkowiak returned to the NBA as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks in the summer of the 2006. He was elevated to head coach with 17 games remaining in the 2006-07 season, and remained with the Bucks the following year. After stints coaching with USA Basketball, and as an assistant with the New Jersey Nets, he was named the head coach of the Utah Utes in 2011.

He’s slowly building the Utes back to national prominence, improving from six wins his first, to 15 his second, to 21 and an NIT berth this past season. He and his wife Jan are the parents of five children. They reside in Salt Lake City.

“This is an honor, and it brings back great memories,” Krystkowiak said of being selected the second-greatest athlete in Big Sky men’s history.