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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."