Krystkowiak Enters Big Sky Hall of Fame

The history of the Montana Grizzly basketball program is rich with legends. The 11 regular season championships and 12 NCAA Tournament appearances. The 100-year history, and the 1,500-plus wins that have accumulated since. The fabled coaching tree littered with College Basketball Hall of Famers.

There is a long list of names that, when spoken aloud by a those associated with Griz Hoops, bring with them a certain air of reverence. There were the legendary coaches. Dahlberg and Heathcote. Brandenburg and Montgomery. The unparalleled players. Michael Ray and Pope. Cherry and Jamar. Rorie and Oguine.

There are even some who did both. Taylor, Tinkle, DeCuire. The list goes on, and on, and on.

But there is one name that has an almost mythical status, even among the ranks of Grizzly greats. There is a man that, almost literally, looms larger than life. Larry Krystkowiak.

Krystkowiak will be inducted into the Big Sky Conference Hall of Fame on Saturday, July 22. He becomes the second male athlete from Montana, joining former quarterback Dave Dickenson, and the first Griz Hoops inductee. If it weren’t for rules limiting each school to one male and one female athlete per class, Kryskowiak certainly would have been in the inaugural class in 2020.

His place in the hall is one that seems almost too obvious. The all-time leading scorer and rebounder for Montana, he is also the only Big Sky Conference player to ever reach 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. The legend of Krystko extended into the NBA, where he enjoyed a successful nine-year career.

It continued into his coaching days, when he became just the second Montana coach to win an NCAA Tournament game. His successes led him back to the NBA, and then to the University of Utah for 10 years and five postseason trips.

When reflecting on his Hall of Fame career, it isn’t the three Big Sky MVPs that come to Krystkowiak’s mind. It’s not the 88 games he won as a Grizzly, or the three All-American honors he pulled in. It’s not the upset win over Nevada in 2006, which remains the last time a Big Sky team advanced in the Big Dance.

It isn’t any of the numbers or the accolades. For Krystkowiak, it’s all about those that helped him along the way.

“When things like this happen, I always think about the people,” Krystkowiak said. “The last thing in the world that I’m thinking about is the award. It’s all the people along the way, that’s what I started flashing back to was all these people that made such a big difference for me.

His journey started on the streets of Great Falls, playing basketball, football, baseball, and whatever else he could with the kids in his local neighborhood. He always loved basketball, but never closed himself off to the opportunities that other sports provided. The family moved to Shelby, Krystkowiak grew six inches in between middle school and high school, and all of a sudden, he was a 6-4 quarterback for the Shelby Coyotes.

Then in his first season, he broke his right arm just below the shoulder socket. It required him to be in half a body cast for months, and ended his football career along with hopes of playing basketball that season. The competitor in him couldn’t leave the team behind, so he became the manager.

There was a benefit to being manager of the football team. It provided him with a key to the basketball gym. An injury that may have forced another athlete to quit only instilled more drive in Krystkowiak. He’d go into the gym, getting up shots and working on skills with his left hand.

“I didn’t consider it work, it was just what I loved to do,” Krystkowiak said. “I knew I could shoot with one hand, and I think that’s a time period also – I scored an awful lot of baskets with my left hand over the years – and I’m not sure there isn’t a correlation with some of that.”

He would recover from his injury and star for Shelby as a sophomore, already garnering attention of some college coaches. Montana had a head start on the competition. As a 10-year old Larry watched as a fan as the 1975 Grizzlies lost a heartbreaker to UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. He remembers shedding tears over the loss. He already had a fan experience with Montana, but his high school coach also provided a connection to Missoula.

Tim Blaine graduated from Montana and moved to Shelby, taking the job as high school coach for the Coyotes. He had played for Jud Heathcote, a big man in the Grizzlies system. He brought that coaching philosophy with him to the Hi-Line.

“The culture of our Shelby team was all built around the Grizzly way,” Krystkowiak said. “That was what Tim Blaine had learned from his coaching staffs, so I got a dose of it. I still didn’t know a whole lot about the difference between colleges and stuff.”

Krystkowiak gives a lot of credit to Blaine, and his middle school coach Gerald Littlejohn, for his early development as a player. He finished up his sophomore year and then moved to Missoula. His brother Bernie, another hugely important figure for Krystkowiak, became his legal guardian.

The constant in his life proved to be hoops. Now reflecting as a father of five who has witnessed first-hand the pressure that parents often put their children under to perform, Krystkowiak says for him the drive was never because of anyone else. It came from inside himself.

“My brother was always supportive, and I thank him for that,” Krystkowiak said. “My mother passed early and my dad was never interested in it, so I never had anybody breathing down my neck and making sure that I worked out or did anything. It was just always what I was going to do on my own, and that’s just a big part of my existence.”

While Larry concluded a highly successful two-year run at Big Sky High School, head coach Mike Montgomery navigated the first few seasons of his reign at Montana. He won 14 games his first year, then 17, then 19.

The teams were highly successful, constantly contending for Big Sky titles, and in the early 80s Derrick Pope emerged as a star player at the power forward position. In Krystkowiak, Montgomery and his staff saw a natural successor to Pope. Other schools came calling, but it was always going to be Montana. Blaine Taylor, then an assistant coach for Montgomery, remembers landing Krystkowiak.

“We were thrilled to have him at Montana, but he could have been recruited to more places,” Taylor said. “Larry was determined to prove the quality of Montana and the Big Sky Conference. There is a book that I read when I was the coach at Loyola-Sacred Heart that said the big-time is where you are at.”

For Larry, Montana was the big-time. There was never much doubt that he would be successful. In the Montana media guide his freshman year, his bio leads with, “A potential Grizzly star in the future.” He played 28 games as a freshman, averaging nearly five points and rebounds per game to earn the Big Sky’s Top Reserve award.

Derrick Pope won Big Sky MVP that year in leading Montana to a 21-8 overall record. He helped Krystkowiak adjust to the speed and physicality of the NCAA during that first season.

“Derrick was my guy. We were roommates. He was and still is a great friend,” Krystkowiak said. “He was a guy that I looked up to, and he did a great job of mentoring. If you know Derrick, he’s very reserved and didn’t have an awful lot to say, but we had a great relationship. I think he saw something in me as a young player.”

At the conclusion of his freshman year, Krystkowiak still had eligibility for the U-19 National Team. Montgomery made some calls and got him a spot on the National Sports Festival’s West Team. He impressed at that tournament, and earned a spot on the USA FIBA U-19 World Championship Team.

The tournament took place in Mallorca, Spain, and Krystkowiak and the USA Team would finish with a 6-2 record and a gold medal after defeating Arvydas Sabonis and the Soviet Union in the championship game.

He returned to school and slotted into Pope’s starting spot, confident from his overseas experience. In his first year as a starter, he averaged 18 points and 10.5 rebounds to lead the Big Sky in both categories. Montana went 23-7 while routinely playing in front of crowds of 8,000-plus, but were eliminated by Nevada in the Big Sky semis. After the year, Krystkowiak again spent the summer on the international stage.

Montgomery called up former Grizzly coach Jud Heathcote. The Michigan State head man was assisting Bobby Knight at the U.S. Olympic team trials, and they found a spot for Krystkowiak. 72 men were invited to Bloomington, Ind. Among the long list of names are those of Jordan, Ewing, Barkley, Malone, Stockton, and more. There were 12 future NBA All-Stars participating in the camp.

For hoops fans, the tryouts were a dream. A long list of all of your favorite collegiate players from across the country, all coming together to compete for a chance to represent the U.S.A. Even for Krystkowiak, he recognized that it was a special group he was a part of in Indiana.

“It was kind of a who’s who of basketball,” Krystkowiak said. “I can remember paging through the program, looking at everybody’s page, and looking over at Charles Barkley and saying, ‘This is kind of cool, I’m the only guy in this entire book that nobody knows.'”

The rest would get to know him. They competed for a week before making the first cut. They would send 40 players home, and Krystkowiak figured he would be among those packing their bags. They announced the 32 players that would return for another week of tryouts in alphabetical order.

… Michael Jordan… Joe Kleine…  Jon Koncak… Larry Krystkowiak

He made it through to the next round of cuts, and found himself battling against the likes of Ewing and Malone. While he may not have made the final 12 that would go on to win gold in Los Angeles that summer, Krystkowiak held his own and proved his toughness.

“I can remember a couple of plays in particular where guys were coming full steam ahead, but I had been taught how to take a charge in Shelby by my middle school coach Gerald Littlejohn and high school coach,” Krystkowiak said. “It was one of the plays that I loved to make, and I think Bobby Knight appreciated it. I didn’t know how to play any other way. I wasn’t going to go dazzle anybody with my skill level but I knew I could always play harder than anybody else, and I think that’s what I tried to do.”

The national success for Krystkowiak translated back at Montana. While he may have surprised some people as a sophomore, there would be none of that in his final two years. Teams threw double teams at him, they game planned against him, they did all they could to slow down No. 42. None of it worked.

Krystkowiak averaged 21 and 10 as a junior to win his second MVP. Then he upped that to 22 and 11 in his final season at Montana. The Grizzlies won 20 games every year that he played, but the one thing that they never achieved was a Big Sky Tournament title. Krystkowiak and Montgomery both remember the championship game his senior year, when a Cinderella run from Montana State dashed their title hopes.

The three-point line had been newly implemented, and the Big Sky Conference were among the first to use it in conference games. The run-and-gun Bobcats took advantage of the new rule. Krystkowiak scored 30 in the title game, but Montana State went 9-for-15 from three in a six-point victory.

His head coach Mike Montgomery remembers all of the outstanding achievements, and said that it’s no surprise that the Big Sky Conference is extending this honor to Krystkowiak.

“It’s well deserved, obviously. He was three-time MVP of the league and we won 20-plus games each year,” Montgomery said. “The one thing that we didn’t win was a championship which kind of sticks in his craw and mine. He was a force in the league, and self-made.”

His playing days bring back fond memories, but again he goes back to the people that surrounded him. Stew Morrill, then an assistant, helped develop Larry by playing against him in practices and open gyms. While it may have come close to blows a few times, Krystkowiak says he owes Morrill a lot for his development.

Montgomery pushed all the right buttons as head coach, and built a system that allowed Krystkowiak to be his best self.

“It comes down to the people. I had a bunch of teammates who were willing to throw me the ball all the time. We didn’t have any culture issues,” Krystkowiak said. “Our coaching staff knew what they wanted to do and everybody had their roles. The Leroy Washington’s and the John Boyd’s and the John Bates’, they are all great friends to this day and they’re always joking that they are pissed because they always had to throw me the ball.”

In addition to the success that he found on the court, Krystkowiak also proved to be a great student. He was a two-time Academic All-American as a business major. It translated to his game on the court, where both Montgomery and Taylor said they could see he had a future in coaching based on his handling of strategy and in-game adjustments.

“I think Larry always had a watchful eye on what was going on around him,” Taylor said. “He saw what was going on and was in the middle of a lot of strategic things. The way people played him. The scouting reports and styles of play. That kind of carried through in his professional career.”

He would be selected 28th overall in the 1986 NBA Draft and play nine seasons for six teams in the NBA. His playing days ended in the CBA with the Idaho Stampede, who would later give him his first head coaching job. In between, he returned to Montana as an assistant coach. From there, he reunited with Taylor at Old Dominion for a season.

As head coach of the Stampede, he led them to the CBA Championship game and a 37-16 record. At the same time, Montana were in the midst of a second consecutive losing season. It was the first time Montana had been under .500 in back-to-back years since 1969-70. After the departure of Pat Kennedy, Krystkowiak was brought in to right the ship.

In his first year, Montana improved by eight games. They went 9-5 in conference play to earn the two-seed at the Big Sky Tournament, and went on to do what Krystkowiak never could as a player. The Grizzlies won the tournament title and with it earned a berth into the NCAA Tournament. Brandon Roy and the 1-seeded Washington Huskies defeated Montana 88-77 that year.

Montana returned several players in 2005-06, and started the year 10-1. They would finish 24-7, and again were second in the Big Sky standings. They avoided an upset in the semifinal of the Big Sky tournament with an overtime victory against Eastern Washington, then defeated host Northern Arizona to earn a second straight trip to the Big Dance.

This time as a 12-seed, Krystkowiak liked Montana’s chances entering the tournament. They came out strong against Nevada, and never trailed in just the second tournament win in Grizzly history. He won 67 percent of the games he coached at Montana, the sixth-best mark in league history, and never lost a Big Sky Tournament game.

But when remembering the experience as coach and the success he enjoyed at Montana, he again thinks back to the people there with him.

“We had a terrific staff. Wayne Tinkle, Brad Huse, Andy Hill. Those guys are foxhole guys,” Krystkowiak said. “They are all terrific coaches. I didn’t have a world of experience. I had been around the game an awful lot. We had a great group of guys on the team. Some good fortune in kind of who you inherited. We had some guys that knew how to play and put together some NCAA teams, and it was a heck of a lot of fun.”

Krystkowiak would take an assistant coaching position with the Milwaukee Bucks the next season, which would turn into a head coaching position a year later. Eventually he would go on to a long, successful career with Utah, playing his home games on the same court of his NCAA victory with Montana.

His legacy looms large for any that step foot on campus in Missoula. For Travis DeCuire, who has followed Krystkowiak at Montana as both a player and a coach, the presence of what Krystkowiak has accomplished at Montana will always be felt.

“He’d done something on both levels that everybody else hadn’t done,” DeCuire said. “He played in the NBA, so he reached that dream pinnacle of what we all want as athletes. He was an All-American. Then to see the success that he’s had as a coach. To win a tournament game, a stay in the NBA, and then the Pac-12. Everywhere he’s been, he’s been successful.”

When you look back on the history of Montana Grizzly basketball, and you remember the great players and coaches that have stepped onto the court inside Dahlberg Arena, Krystkowiak’s name will always be at or near the top of all lists.

But as a Montana kid, Krystkowiak knows all the history as well. He remembers the great players and moments in program history. For him, leading Montana to an NCAA Tournament victory was about something much bigger than himself.

“I was thinking about all the games that we’d been in as players,” Krystkowiak said. “I was thinking about all the years that the Grizzlies had been in situations with really good teams that for whatever reason, didn’t get a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. For me, it felt a lot bigger than anything that I or that team had done. It made me think about the coaches and players that had been a part of that program.”

It’s about the people for Krystkowiak. It always has been. One of the most significant people in his life is his wife Jan, who followed him around a lot of stops early on in his coaching career and supported him through it all. Now, the two get to follow their five kids around and experience athletics through the lens of parents.

Legacy is bound to come up when discussing a lifetime achievement like this. He already has his number 42 retired by Montana and is part of the Grizzly Hall of Fame. But does Krystkowiak himself consider his legacy and just how much he meant to this University?

“Not really. And I’ve tried to,” Krystkowiak said. “Maybe the closest thing that I can come up with, and I have been thinking about this, but my heart keeps going back to how great the game has been to me. Everything that it’s allowed me to do. The people it’s allowed me to meet, the relationships, it’s all unbelievable. Not to mention to make a living as a player for 10 years and a coach for 20 years to get paid to do something that’s a game.”

From the days playing in the streets of Great Falls to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Krystkowiak has seen and done it all. It’s a story and a career truly worthy of a Hall of Fame.

“Instead of thinking about what I’ve done for the game, my heart keeps going back to what the game has done for me,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s never really been about me. I just can’t help but get emotional thinking about it.”

Krystkowiak and the other 13 members of the 2023 Big Sky Hall of Fame Class will be honored on Saturday, July 22 in Spokane, Washington. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Northern Quest Resort & Casino, can be purchased here. Each ticket is $80, which includes admission to the event and a meal at the banquet.