A Bright Light in B-Town: How an IU Basketball Legend Has Transformed His Community Off the Court
As you gaze at the menu options depicting everything from mouth-watering single, double, cheese, and bacon ButterBurgers to the flavor of the day, a light cookies-and-cream frozen custard slowly churning out of the trademark Culver’s custard machine, you can’t help but notice the very tall, older employee with a dark blue polo, black dress pants, and a Culver’s hat quietly scrubbing the tables. He nitpicks every single crumb, making sure the restaurant is completely spotless for the numerous regulars that frequent the location. As he cleans, he chats up the guests, calling some by their first names and asking how their families are. He alternates between this clean-and-greet and running a cash register, helping out the often-overloaded front employees take orders.
If you didn’t grow up in Bloomington, or you didn’t watch Hoosier Basketball during Bobby Knight’s early tenure as head coach, you would mistake this employee for just another Indiana resident. But locals know him as ‘Super Sub’ John Laskowski, and current owner of this West 3rd Street Culver’s.
Laskowski grew up in South Bend, Indiana and dreamt of playing for Notre Dame. As he alternated between pick up games with his friends and watching college basketball games, he quickly took an interest in the sport. In high school, he averaged 1.5 points per game during his freshman year. Flash forward to senior year and the All-Indiana Second Team and 6th highest points leader in the entire state was averaging 29 points per game. Growth like that attracted attention, and Laskowski was offered a full ride athletic scholarship to play for the Fighting Irish. Two months later, after Laskowski accepted the offer and visited campus, the head coach of Notre Dame was fired, and the new coach, Digger Phelps, terminated his scholarship offer. “When you get disappointed in life,” Laskowski said, reciting one of the mantras passed on to him by his dad, “there may be something better on the other side.”
And there was. Indiana came calling, and Laskowski became a part of Bobby Knight’s first recruiting class in 1971 and one of the most important members of the Hoosier team. Known for his tremendous work ethic as a 6th man, Laskowski and the IU team went undefeated in the Big 10 for two straight years, something that has never been done since. After his college career, he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the 32nd pick in the second round of the 1975 NBA Draft, and played two seasons in the NBA.
After playing pro and deciding to move on to the next phase in his life, Laskowski was reunited with Bobby Knight once again. Knight wanted Laskowski to be one of the commentators for IU Basketball, an occupation he had zero experience with and no training. “When the red light goes on, start talking,” Knight told him. For 33 years, that’s exactly what Laskowski did. He started talking when the red light went on, and with the help of that red light, he became the familiar face on everyone’s television; he grew to be the family member everyone wished they had, but instead of eating dinner with them, he was standing courtside in Assembly Hall, calling every Hoosier layup, block, and win.
The 6-foot-six-inch “Laz”, as most of his customers, friends, and family call him, grew up largely without Culver’s, and didn’t take notice of the restaurant until he attended an alumni camp for IU in Elkhart, Wisconsin during his time on television. He was asked to do a small basketball clinic for the alumni, and he drove up to Sheboygan, a smaller town in Wisconsin one Friday. “Friday’s my golf day,” he said, “and as I was driving to Sheboygan, I saw a sign that read ButterBurgers and frozen custard.” Laskowski exited the road and pulled into the parking lot of (unbeknownst to him) one of the first Culver’s in the country; thus began his fascination with the Wisconsin staple.
After years of schooling, travelling, researching, and building, Laz opened his very own Culver’s on November 5th, 2018 as the front restaurant manager with the help of his son, Scott Laskowski, who took over as the general manager and back office manager. Their opening day became the most profitable of any Culver’s single day profit in history as droves of Bloomington residents flocked to see their childhood hero open his first restaurant. People showed up at 3 am just to be the first in line, and within the first 35 minutes of opening they had served 400 people. But that’s not the most surprising aspect of the “Laskowski Opening Week.” The next day, they broke the record yet again, setting themselves up to have the most profitable eight months of any Culver’s in the world.
Apart from serving as a meeting place for people of all races, genders, and ages, the Laskowski family and Culver’s do so much more. The restaurant has become a museum of sorts for John Laskowski. “There’s so many people that don’t get an insight into what it was actually like,” said son Scott Laskowski. “It’s great that he’s available to the public.” The restaurant is jam-packed full of families, with parents showing holding their kids’ hand and leading them to John Laskowski’s framed IU jersey or taking them up to John himself to get an autograph. Laz has even created a souvenir for his visitors: a double sided small stock card with his Sports Illustrated Cover on one side and information about Culver’s on the other. “We added this little white space, too,” said Laskowski, gesturing to a small margin underneath the cover picture. Laz signs every single card in this margin for any child, adult, or fan, always keeping a thick, black Sharpie in his front cat pocket.
Perhaps the most intriguing and impacting facet of this particular Culver’s are their “Share Nights”, where a portion of the proceeds from one particular night go to homeless shelters, organizations, schools, or any other person or group in Bloomington that need financial help. In January, after a two year old child died in a house fire, John and Scott developed an idea to do a full day fundraiser with 50 percent of all proceeds going to the affected family.
“We ended up raising over $10,000 in one day for the family to help with furniture, finding a new place to live, and just daily needs that they couldn’t afford anymore,” said Scott with an enormous smile on his face, full of the same pride and genuine caring for other people that his father exudes. “If there’s something that the town needs, we’re going to be there to have their back.” Every time the Laskowski family talks about their community, their eyes light up and the dedication they both give to their neighborhood is immediately obvious.
Laz was a great IU basketball player, and he will always be remembered for his positive outcome and energy as a super sub. But in reality, the court isn’t where he had the most impact. It’s instead in a small, hometown restaurant with blue and white decor, IU memorabilia, sizzling burgers, and crunchy cheese curds, where you can find John Laskowski every single day sweeping, cleaning, and taking orders, working harder than anyone else his age to leave his special mark on B-Town.