Home News Brandin Podziemski playing with heavy heart after high school coach’s death

Brandin Podziemski playing with heavy heart after high school coach’s death


MIAMI — For the rest of this season, Brandin Podziemski’s sneakers will be marked up with two messages: “R.I.P. Duane Mlachnik” and “L.I.F. – DM.”

Podziemski, for the second time this season, is grieving the loss of a coach close to him. Duane Mlachnik, Podziemski’s high school coach for two years, died on March 21, 2024 at age 61.

“He really jump-started my love for basketball,” Podziemski said. “He kind of showed me the endless potential and opportunities it could create for me.”

Podziemski started seriously playing basketball when he was in eighth grade. He was tight with Mlachnik’s nephew, Max, and through him got introduced to Duane and his program at St. John’s Northwestern — a military academy outside Milwaukee.

After one year of public school, at his parents’ behest, Podziemski transferred to St. John’s. He spent his sophomore and junior year — two All-State campaigns — playing for Mlachnik.

But during Podziemski’s senior year, Mlachnik got diagnosed with Blastomycosis, a rare fungal pneumonia. Mlachnik’s son took over as head coach in a year Podziemski was named Wisconsin Mr. Basketball.

The past four years have been difficult for Mlachnik and his family amid his health issues. Podziemski said he got a lung transplant, lost so much weight that he “didn’t look like himself” and required an air tank to breathe.

While NBA players, even rookies like Podziemski, are long removed from their high school days, many stay connected to coaches who make an impact on them. Gary Payton II last week honored his AAU coach, Darrel Jordan, who helped him hone his skills once he committed to pursuing his basketball dream, at an awards event last week. Steph Curry keeps in occasional touch with his high school coach at Charlotte Christian, Shonn Brown, and once surprised the school with a message on the loudspeakers when he was back in town.

Podziemski was especially close with Mlachnik. Up until March 21, Podziemski would regularly check in with the coach to see how he was feeling. And Mlachnik, even in his condition, continued to coach his former star guard.

In a three-game stretch, from March 16 to March 20, Podziemski struggled through arguably his worst stretch as a rookie. He recorded only seven points across 81 minutes, including a scoreless night in a loss to the Knicks.

“He noticed that I didn’t really look like myself out there, particularly offensively,” Podziemski said. “Playing a little more passive than aggressive. So like, on my shoes, it says ‘L.I.F’ — let it fly. That’s what he kept stressing to me.”

Photo of Brandin Podziemski's sneakers, marked up in honor of Duane Mlachnik
Danny Emerman | Bay Area News Group

In the two games since March 21, when Mlachnik died, Podziemski has taken, and sank, more shots. The loss is still weighing on him “quite a bit,” though.

“It’s been tough,” Podziemski said. “But I think through playing, being around basketball to try to take your mind off it. I’ve been trying to do a lot of that. Obviously in my free time, you think about it quite a bit. Lot of death, obviously, with Deki. Just trying to use basketball as a way to get your mind off it.”

Podziemski has made arrangements to return to Wisconsin on April 1 for Mlachnik’s funeral. His high school teammates will be there, as well as many members of Mlachik’s family he knows well. According to Mlachnik’s obituary, he had six kids and 16 grandchildren, many of whom he coached.

“He meant a lot to me,” Podziemski said. “He kind of showed me what my journey could look like if I really put my mind to it…He’s always been in my corner through ups and downs. Same with everyone else in his family.”

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