Women’s basketball: Brother’s ultimate sacrifice helps Gulczynski put losing seasons in perspective

first_imgPerseverance is something Jacki Gulczynski had to learn at a young age — and for all of the wrong reasons.On Sept. 17, 2008, when she was 15, her brother Lenny was killed while serving in Iraq, when the driver of the Humvee he was riding in lost control of the vehicle and crashed, ejecting him. He was 19 years old.“I think it puts life in a different perspective,” Gulczynski said. “Anybody who has a life-changing moment like that sees things differently.”That perspective has carried into the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball forward’s career, which doesn’t have much left in it. Gulczynski will take the Kohl Center floor for the final two times Thursday night against No. 5 Maryland and Sunday afternoon on Senior Day against Northwestern.And when asked what she’s most proud of during her time at Wisconsin, the answer is not a specific game, or moment, or shot. It’s a word. It’s a trait. It’s character-defining.Perseverance.During her senior year of high school, Gulzynski remembers looking onto the court from the upper deck of the Kohl Center, deciding to commit to Wisconsin.Now, gazing at the big, red ‘W’ at center-court again, Gulzynski realizes that her time in Madison is dwindling.“It’s bittersweet. The fans have been so good to us,” Gulczynski said. “We’re really lucky to play for such an amazing community and school.”Just like she has in the past, she’ll persevere through her career ending, too.Gulczynski’s first act of perseverance as a Badger came before she even set foot on campus. The spring of her senior year of high school, Wisconsin fired former head coach Lisa Stone, complicating her commitment.Bobbie Kelsey, the current UW head coach, visited her and her family in Gulczynski’s hometown of Carol Stream, Illinois. She decided to remain a Badger, saying she chose Wisconsin because of the community and the academics, which outweighed any other factors.It was on that visit that Kelsey heard the Gulczynski family story, and the first time she learned about Lenny, who had died only about two-and-a-half years before.“We will never let her forget his sacrifice and what he chose to do to protect us and our freedom,” Kelsey said.So every Sept. 17, when the team joins hands in a circle at the middle of the court like they always do, they dedicate a moment of silence to Lenny, and to remind Gulczynski of her teammates’ love and support.“We always make sure she knows that we’re thinking about her on that day,” Kelsey said. “It’s a hard day for her and her family, but when you have the support of the people around you, it makes it more bearable, not easier, just more bearable.”Perseverance has followed Gulczynski onto the court. After at one point averaging 13.0 points per game and 33.6 minutes per game, she has seen a decrease in both of those categories. Last season she averaged 7.9 points per game and 31 minutes, while averaging 29.5 minutes and 8.9 points per contest this season.Injuries the team suffered during her sophomore season propelled her into that scorer’s role, but she hasn’t needed to score as much because of a more balanced team attack, she said.“Roles can change,” Gulczynski said. “And I’ve been okay with that. It’s not about me, it’s about what’s gonna be best for us as a whole.”In all four of her seasons at Wisconsin, the Badgers have never been within seven games of .500 at the end of the season. Her record as a Badger is 49-94.“It’s tough losing, and unfortunately throughout my career I’ve been on teams that have had losing records,” Gulczynski said. “But the team camaraderie … I think I’m proud of the girls for sticking through whatever obstacles we’ve gone through.”Because at the end of the day, the losses she’s suffered on the court don’t even come close to the loss she’s suffered in her heart.“I’m sure [Lenny’s death] motivated her to continue to push forward,” Kelsey said. “And that he’d want her to play tough and strong because those are some of the things he displayed in his service to this country.”There are happy moments too, like sinking six three-pointers against Penn State in a 23-point performance Jan. 6 of this year. Like being named to the 2012-13 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten list, or being named to the 2013 and 2014 Academic All-Big Ten teams (her major is civil and environmental engineering).There are the times when action is slow during the game, and Gulczynski will look down at the wristband on her left wrist, which displays her brother’s initials, something she started doing her sophomore year of high school for both basketball and volleyball.“It’s just something special that I have that always reminds me that I have my brother with me,” Gulczynski said.The Gulczynski clan has always been a military clan. Her father, Mike, served in the 70s and 80s. Now, her younger brother, also named Mike, was recently admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point, giving up a promising career in volleyball. Her younger brother’s decision to join the forces prompted Gulczynski to add Mike’s initials to the wrist band, as well.“I’m just blessed to have that and think about them, kind of during the down times of the game,” Gulczynski said.When Gulczynski and the other three seniors are honored Sunday afternoon, neither of her brothers will be there. Instead, she will walk onto the court surrounded by her parents, aunts and uncles. But her brothers will be where they always are when she dresses in the cardinal and white — her left wrist.“I really wish both of my brothers could be here,” Gulczynski said. “Unfortunately they can’t, but like I said, I have them with me every time I go out on the floor. They stay with me right on my left wrist.”Sunday will also be the final time Gulczynski will play in front of the Kohl Center faithful, for whom she said she is incredibly grateful for.She plans on addressing the crowd during the ceremony, something she’s been thinking about before falling asleep for the last couple of weeks.“I wish I could go up to every single fan and thank them personally for sticking with us these last four years,” Gulczynski said. “I know we haven’t had the greatest of records, but for us to consistently get three, four thousand people a game, it means so much to me and to the college experience I had.”And while her basketball career will close in the forthcoming weeks, Jacki Gulczynski, better than anybody, knows there’s more to life than a game.“I have the perspective of life that [basketball] is going to end and I’m going to be okay, because I still have my family … I’ll be okay when I’m done with ball.”last_img