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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.