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Coach K: From Ukrainian Village to March Madness

Mike Krzyzewski

Mike Krzyzewski

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Updated: March 25, 2013 2:16AM

Mike Krzyzewski is a familiar name to even casual sports fans.

One of the country’s most successful basketball coaches, he has led Duke University to four national championships and twice coached the USA to gold-medal finishes in the Olympics.

What many forget is that Krzyzewski, the son of Polish immigrants, grew up in Chicago.

His parents rented an apartment on Cortez Street, near Western Avenue, in Ukrainian Village.

He attended Saint Helen School on Augusta Boulevard and Weber High School, which closed in 1999.

In the book “Leading With the Heart,” published in 2000, Krzyzewski, spoke fondly of his neighborhood. He often gathered buddies on the playground of Columbus Elementary to play basketball or fast-pitch.

The basketball hoop at Columbus is gone, but other aspects of the neighborhood remain unchanged.

Many bungalows, two-flats and three-flats have been gutted and remodeled over the years (some became condominiums), but the exteriors of these beautiful brick buildings still have their vintage look. The neighborhood has landmark status, and facades cannot stray from the original architecture.

Susan Kralka, 58, has lived on Cortez for 35 years and calls the neighborhood quaint. “You feel like it’s your own little county,” she said.

The neighborhood has become gentrified, and many Polish and Ukrainian residents moved out or died off; some were priced out by property tax increases, Kralka said.

She said that decades ago a Polish parade used to march down Augusta. “Now everything is Downtown,” she added.

Yet Saint Helen Church at the corner of Augusta and Oakley still maintains its traditions. Three times daily, starting at 6 a.m., its bell tolls. In summers the church hosts a carnival, for which Augusta is closed.

The church has three neighborhood processions each year, and the next one will be at 6 a.m. Sunday for Easter. “We announce Jesus has risen with 300 people,” Fr. Waldemar Stawiarski said. They will be accompanied by a brass band. Some are so moved by song and prayer that they cry, he added.

A few blocks away, at the corner of Western and Augusta, a Rexall Drugstore still stands with its outdated but welcoming neon sign. Pharmacist Leonard Kosirog opened it in 1956, and son Glenn Kosirog has been there for 27 years. “Actually, I’ve been here all my life,” Glenn Kosirog said. “I’ll probably die here, too.”

I wanted to know how his pharmacy had survived when many old-time drugstores, unable to compete with chain pharmacies such as Walgreen’s and CVS, have been shuttered.

In addition to filling prescriptions, he specializes in supplies for mothers who breastfeed, and that has given him a niche. He also gives away supplies to the needy, he said.

Before speaking to me, he took a call from a shelter housing a woman who needed a breast pump.

“What goes around comes around,” he said. “We make a difference and God keeps us in business.”

Except for the principal at Saint Helen School, who remains in touch with Krzyzewski, nobody I met in the neighborhood had ever heard of him.

That’s really not surprising considering he left to play college basketball at Army more than 40 years ago. He has been at Duke in Durham, N.C., since 1980. When his mother, Emily, died in 1996, her funeral mass was held at Saint Helen.

People move on; others breathe new life into neighborhoods.

But it’s always nice when some things stay the same.

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