Remembering Legendary New York Basketball Scout Tom Konchalski
Tom Konchalski, on far right, with Jonathan Givony, James Zagoria and Adam Zagoria.
The handshake always seemed to come at you from across the room and you had better be ready when it did.
You had to have your palm open and be prepared to settle in for a good while. Thirty seconds, sixty, whatever. Tom Konchalski’s right hand had you locked in a grasp. At basketball games, his left hand was almost always clutching a black pad containing hoops programs, newspaper clippings and the yellow legal pad he had used that day for evaluating high school players. Sometimes, when he didn’t have the pad, his left hand would hold your right forearm for emphasis. Then you were really going to be there for a spell.
At 6-foot-6, he was looking down at you from behind his glasses with a warm smile, addressing you by your first name. Whether he had last seen you yesterday or 20 years ago it didn’t matter, he knew your name and likely the names of your wife (or husband), parents and children, too. And he was asking because he genuinely cared, “How are you?”
The handshake was his calling card and it was also the reason we ended up staying late at the Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C. those many summer nights. Trying to get him out of the gym at 11 p.m. was like walking with the Pope or an older version of Elvis. The hallways of the Riverview Park Activities Center were filled with players, coaches, parents filing out after a long day of games. He couldn’t go long before somebody stopped him and wanted a few minutes of his time — or he would stop them to chat. Two years ago, when we were both tired and hungry for a late night snack, I got him out of the building and almost to the rental car in the huge emptying parking lot when we ran into Jamal Mashburn and a female friend in the darkness of the summer night.
“Mr. Konchalski, how are you?” Mashburn, who was there to watch his son Jamal Jr., said with a huge smile before getting swallowed up by the handshake.
Standing in near darkness, with only the fluorescent parking lot lights to see by, Mashburn explained to the friend that “Mr. Konchalski” had covered all of his games at Cardinal Hayes High School, long before he was a college and NBA star. Much to the delight of Jamal and his friend, Tom proceeded to detail the exploits of Mashburn’s high school career in great detail — names, dates, scoring totals — as if they had happened last week instead of 30 years ago. It was going to be another 10 or 15 minutes before I got him in the rental car.
THE HALL OF FAME IS CALLING
After a long battle with cancer, Tom passed peacefully on Monday at the Cavalry Hospital in The Bronx, a non-profit institution specializing in hospice and palliative care. He was only 74. It was the place he wanted to be for his final days.
“I’m ready to cross the goal line,” he said on Friday when I visited him at Mount Sinai West Hospital before he transitioned to hospice. “We will see each other again.”
A lifelong bachelor, Tom is survived by his older brother Steve, the longtime basketball coach at St. Francis University in Nova Scotia, his wife, Charlene, and their three adult children, Chris, Julianne, and Maria and one grandchild.
Born in Manhattan on Jan. 8, 1947, Tom and his brother Steve moved with their parents to East Elmhurst Queens and then Elmhurst in the 1950s. While Steve pursued basketball and won a national championship at Acadia College in 1965, Tom became a Catholic school math teacher. He said he was never very good at basketball despite his height and joked to The New York Times
in 2013 that his career as a scout was “revenge for that.”
“I like to say that the only thing I’ve ever jumped to in my life is a conclusion,” he said.
He quit teaching math in 1979 to work full-time for Howard Garfinkel, the legendary scout who founded the High School Basketball Illustrated magazine but sold it to Konchalski in 1984. “Garf,” a colorful character who loved to smoke cigars and bet on the ponies as much he liked being around basketball, passed in 2016 at 86.
Tom and Garf are both candidates in the Class of 2021 for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as contributors, and if the folks in Springfield have any sense, they’ll put them both in immediately. The only shame will be that they didn’t live to see it. One thing the Hall of Fame should consider is naming the press area there after Tom Konchalski. It would be a fitting salute.
“There are basketball Gods, and they send down angels to do their work,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewksi told filmmaker Jonathan Hock about Tom before his passing. “He’s one of them. It’s not about him, it’s about those kids and the game. And the game of basketball is better as a result of Tom Konchalski.”
‘MY DOCTOR SAID WE’VE DONE ALL WE CAN’
Tom’s devout Catholicism seemed to give him peace and hope in his final days. He was always attending church, even during basketball tournaments. I dropped him off at the Catholic church near the Peach Jam on more than one occasion. And he wasn’t just praying for himself, either. Longtime Northfield Mount Hermon (MA) coach John Carroll said after Tom met his mother once in 1982, Tom later went to church repeatedly to pray for his mom while she battled cancer.
His religious beliefs soothed at the end. He had done everything he could to fight the terrible disease, including several rounds of chemotherapy and experimental immunotherapy treatments.
“My doctor told me we’ve done all we can, we can’t treat the disease, we can only treat the symptoms and make you feel comfortable,” he told me in the hospital.
With his good friend Barry “Slice” Rohrssen, a longtime basketball coach who is now a broadcaster for St. Francis basketball games, sitting on the window sill next to the bed, Tom proceeded to recall some of the details of our adventures at the Peach Jam and other basketball events in New Jersey, Connecticut and other spots in the Northeast.
DRIVING MR. KONCHALSKI
Tom never had a cell phone, a computer or a driver’s license. He often took trains or buses to events and had others drive him around. At some point about a decade ago, I became his unofficial chauffeur and sometimes roommate at Peach Jam.
For years we somehow managed to get lost in the darkness making the 8-mile trip each night from the gym to the La Quinta Inn on 3020 Washington Road in Augusta, Georgia. It never failed. Even Siri seemed to let us down sometimes.
“Do you remember when she told us to go someplace 277 miles away?” Tom asked that day in the hospital. He probably remembered the exact mileage, it was incredible.
With Tom Konchalski at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass in 2020.
I think by the end of our Peach Jam journeys, we had the route more or less figured out. I treasured those times, getting lost and all. On the drives back to the hotel, we would talk about who played well that day — and who did not. Tom wasn’t a big music guy so I didn’t crank up the classic rock in the car like I normally would. In the quiet of our car rides, we would talk about the day’s games and players and stories. Occasionally, I would have a piece of recruiting or basketball news that Tom was not aware of, and he would listen with interest when I shared it. But mostly, even though he never sent a text or Tweet in his life, he knew everything about that world anyway. People trusted him and told him things. When he had information he wanted to share off the record, he would say, “Now you’re not going to write this.”
But often he was willing to be quoted and sometimes I would break out my tape recorder while we were driving and get a few quotes from him about a certain player or topic. We would stop near the hotel, so he could get a muffin and I could get a bag of Doritos and a beer for the hotel room.
The whole process would begin in mid- to late-June when Tom would call me and and explain that he had booked his flight reservations to Augusta. The tournament, the crown jewel of Nike’s
summer circuit, ran from Wednesday-Sunday during one of the NCAA college basketball evaluation periods in July. He would always fly in on Wednesday and be there for the first games late that afternoon. On that first day, he would get a ride back to the hotel from someone else. I usually flew in on Thursday, met him at the gym and then became his chauffer for the weekend.
In the morning, he liked to get up early and get breakfast in the La Quinta lobby. We would meet up there and he would eat and plan out his day’s schedule. Often a couple of other friends of his from basketball — Wayne Gooch and Tom Turner — would be at the hotel and would tag along with him for the day.
“Basketball has given me a lot of good friends,” he said in the hospital.
At Peach Jam, the 24 teams were divided into four pools of six and he liked to spend the morning session in one gym watching the teams in one pool before shifting to another gym for another pool in the night session.
In between sessions we would sneak out to get something to eat at one of the local restaurants. Tom’s favorite was the chicken pot pie from Boston Market, and once told The New York Times he first visited the franchise on Dec. 1, 1994, while on a trip to scout a young Kobe Bryant in Pennsylvania. But since there isn’t a Boston Market in North Augusta, S.C., we settled for Italian at Antonio’s Italian Eatery up the road or the all-you-could eat buffet at BJ Country Buffet. Tom was a meat and potatoes guy, he wasn’t much for the spicy Mexican, Chinese and Indian food I love. He didn’t like the spicy lifestyle, either. One time Gooch and Turner took him into a Hooter’s restaurant near the Peach Jam at about 3:30 in the afternoon, before the evening session. While Wayne and Tom had a bite to eat, Tom didn’t order anything, he didn’t even drink a glass of water.
“I have never been in one of these,” Tom told his friends. “Interesting place.”
‘A MOUNTAIN MASQUERADING AS A MAN’
Back at the gym, Tom never sat with the rest of the media in the chairs scattered around the court where coaches like Coach K, John Calipari, Roy Williams, Bill Self and Tom Izzo sat. Wearing his khahi shorts, short-sleeve collared shirt and windbreaker (it’s always freezing at the Peach Jam because of the air conditioning), it was his custom to sit at or near the top of the bleachers, among the parents and fans.
He would chart three or four key players from each team. Over the years, we saw many future stars at Peach Jam, including Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle. By the end of the day, in the car ride back to the hotel, Tom was able to say that so and so was 3-of-5 on paint touches and 4-of-6 from behind the three-point arc for this many points, rebounds, assists and deflections. You came to learn pretty quickly that his stats were just about infallible and often more accurate than the box score put out by the tournament. He would scoff at the inaccuracies in the box scores sometimes.
Still, he never said a bad word about anyone, and I never heard anyone say a bad word about him.
Ultimately, Tom would go home and type up his player evaluation reports in his Forest Hill apartment and mail them out to the hundreds of coaches who subscribed to his HSBI Report. He put the reports out every three weeks.
Over the years, Tom delivered these gems on various players:
On former Rutgers’ and Creighton big man Greg Echenique: “He’s a mountain masquerading as a man.”
On onetime Villanova forward JayVaughn Pinkston: “He has the body of a blacksmith, the touch of a surgeon.”
On former Seton Hall forward Fuquan Edwin: “He scores like we breathe.”
ENJOYING BASEBALL AND TENNIS, TOO
Tom Konchalski, middle, with former Mets GM Omar Minaya and friends at a Mets game.
One year at the Peach Jam, Tom and I shared a room, mainly to save me money on a limited budget. I paid for the rental car and he paid for the room, that’s how it worked. That year, I had come from Ultimate Frisbee Nationals in Ohio and met up with Tom at the tournament. It was like a scene from “The Odd Couple.” My side of the room had Frisbee cleats, empty beer cans and a general mess on one side of the bed. His side was immaculate. Each night, he folded his collared shirt and put it at the top of the closet at in our La Quinta room. He got down on his knees and prayed by the side of his bed before going to sleep.
One of those mid-July nights, we sat on our respective twin beds watching the MLB All-Star Game.
“I like to watch the All-Star Game,” he said with with joy.
I was on my laptop writing up the day’s recruiting news, and he was jotting down stats on his yellow legal pad. Once in a while, I would ask for stats on a certain player and would say, “Hold on, let me finish. I’ll tell you in a minute.” He would then rattle off exactly how many points, rebounds and assists that player had. I would post it as part of a recruiting update on a player, along with their quotes about various schools, and presto, news was made.
The Peach Jam also takes place during Wimbledon and sometimes I would miss the morning sessions at the gym to stay in the room and watch the semifinals and finals.
Tom was also a big tennis guy and had served for many years as an unpaid linesman at the West Side Tennis Club, site of the old U.S. Open in Forest Hills.
In one anecdote Tom related to me and Kevin Armstrong over the years, he was calling lines during a John McEnroe match in 1977.
“Konchalski called a ball out,” Armstrong wrote in SI. “McEnroe, the prince of petulance, complained and Konchalski reversed his call. After the match, a linesman told Konchalski he was correct originally. He never worked another match.”
Still, Tom would meet me and Kevin each year outside the press room at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows and we would have lunch in the food court. It was a nice respite from all the basketball games, and Tom seemed relaxed without his legal pad and pen.
‘WHO THE F—K IS MIKE JORDAN?’
UNDATED: University of North Carolina’s Michael Jordan #23 provides defence during a game. (Photo by … [+]
Focus on Sport via Getty Images
To understand the breadth of a career that began in the late 1950s is to see the entire history of modern basketball.
Tom told The New York Times in 2013 he realized basketball was his life’s calling after seeing a teenage Connie Hawkins playing summer league ball in 1959.
“I would follow him from playground to playground,” he said of Hawkins, who starred at Boys High School in Brooklyn and as a professional. “His game was electric. With one hand, he could palm a rebound out of the air.”
In 1980, while drafting a team for then-Syracuse assistant Brendan Malone at the famed Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh, Konchalski chose a young shooting guard from North Carolina.
Malone missed the camp draft to be with his wife Maureen, who suffered a motorbike accident near their home in Rockville Centre, N.Y. and had to get seven stitches in her head.
After arriving at the camp, Malone asked Konchalski, “You picked Aubrey Sherrod [at shooting guard]?”
“No,” Konchalski said.
“Who’d you pick?”
“Who the f*** is he?” Malone demanded.
“He found out soon enough,” Konchalski recalled 40 years later with a smile.
Tom was also there for the dawn of LeBron James’ career as well. My friend Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News wrote a column in 2020 detailing his experience with Tom at Five-Star in Pittsburgh in July of 2000. DeCourcy could only attend the camp in the afternoon since he had a dinner date with his wife and other family members.
“You have to see this young man, LeBron James,” Konchalski told DeCourcy as he squeezed in next to him in the stands.
“Really? OK, when does he play? What court?”
“He doesn’t play again until tonight. You HAVE to see him,” he said.
DeCourcy wrote: “The urgency with which he issued this declaration made it clear I was going to be missing something extraordinary, even historic. It was like being told by The New York Times theater critic that you had to get to a performance of ‘Hamilton,’ at the Public Theater, before it got to Broadway and everyone discovered it.”
LEW ALCINDOR AND THE GREATEST RECRUITING CLASS EVER
Yet even after seeing and covering Hawkins, Jordan and James as high school prospects, Konchalski always saved his highest praise for a New York City star named Lew Alcindor.
I once asked Tom if one of Calipari’s stacked recruiting classes full of McDonald’s All-Americans at Kentucky was the best recruiting class ever and he quickly smiled and dismissed it. He explained that Alcindor going to UCLA by himself was the greatest recruiting class ever because he ended up leading the Bruins to three NCAA championships from 1967-69 and said that no Kentucky one-and-done was ever going to match that.
Speaking of Calipari, when Matt Caputo was 8 he used to sit with Tom at games at Archbishop Molloy High School when his older brother Chris Caputo was on the freshman and JV teams. Matt told Tom he wanted to be the GM of the Nets one day. So Tom asked Calipari, then the coach of the Nets, to write Matt a letter. And he did.
After watching the great 2019-20 Montverde (FL) Academy team at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., in January 2020, Tom and I stopped at a diner on the way home to New York. I asked Tom where coach Kevin Boyle’s team ranked in the pantheon of great high school teams, and over his baked chicken dinner he thought about it and gave a concise answer. He said the three best high school teams ever were the Power Memorial teams featuring Alcindor from 1963-65. He also cited the Power Memorial 1970 team with Len Elmore, Jap Trimble and Ed Searcy, the early 1980s Baltimore Dunbar teams featuring Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues and David Wingate, and the 1989 Jersey City St. Anthony’s team that included Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere and Jerry Walker. (Tom and Bob Hurley Sr. remained great friends until the end, and Bob Sr. spoke on the phone with Tom on Friday night.)
I thought the information on the greatest high school teams was worth sharing with the world, so I put Tom’s thoughts on Twitter. Almost immediately, I got a text from Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith, a longtime friend of Tom’s, who wanted to know where his Oak Hill teams fit into that discussion. Tom quickly made an addendum to his list, saying the 1992-93 Oak Hill team featuring Jerry Stackhouse, Jeff McInnis, Makhtar Ndiaye and Mark Blount belonged among the top high school teams ever.
‘YOU REMEMBER THE THINGS YOU CARE ABOUT MOST’
His memory for all things basketball was so special, I once asked him if he had that same thing that “Taxi” actress Marilu Henner has where she says he can remember every day of her life and whether something happened on a Tuesday or a Friday. It’s called highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), a rare condition shared by only 100 people worldwide.
Tom said that no, he didn’t have that, and even though he was big fan of the movies and often went to them in his spare time (he once took me to a documentary on Jewish basketball players), he didn’t remember lines and actors in films as well as he did basketball events. He said you remember the things you care about the most.
Still, he was known to recite movie lines on occasion.
One time when Tom was visiting Northfield Mount Hermon and scouting the team, he asked coach John Carroll if he was a fan of the actor Liam Neeson and then proceeded to break into the famous monologue from “Taken” about having special talents. Carroll though part of the monologue sounded like Tom was talking about himself.
“If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career.”
“Tom transformed into another person, putting his own take on the lines,” Carroll recalled. “The lights in Forslund [Gym] are motion-sensors and the lights all went out behind Tom except for the lights over our head. The gym was dark and Tom made it even darker with his performance. He deserved an Oscar for that performance and he deserves to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.”
‘THE ONLY HONEST MAN IN THE GYM’
Tom Konchalski at home in the gym.
Each year after the Hoophall Classic and the Peach Jam, we would assemble an all-tournament team that I put on my Website ZAGSBLOG under the co-byline “Tom Konchalski and Adam Zagoria.” The last one came after we made the trip to the Hoophall Classic in January 2020 just before Tom “retired” that spring.
Tom would call me several days after the event and say, “If you have a few minutes now, we could go over the team.”
Rightly so, he knew to pick players who weren’t four- or five-star recruits and weren’t the biggest names on the recruiting circuit, but who had performed the best at that particular event. He wasn’t into catering to the blue blood recruits if they hadn’t performed well.
John Feinstein of The Washington Post once described Tom as “The only honest man in the gym.” While everyone else in the gym had an agenda, Tom did not. The players want to be noticed by college coaches and get scholarships. The coaches want to land the best players to help them win games and make the NCAA Tournament and get contract extensions or better jobs. The reporters root for good stories and interesting angles. Tom spoke to Coach K and John Calipari the same way he talked to Division 3 coaches. He treated mid-major recruits withe the same respect he gave five-star prospects.
“Tom first saw me play in the seventh grade,” Chris Mullin told Hock for the documentary. “Over the years, he took the time to get to know my family and my coaches, to learn what made me tick as a person. He wasn’t just seeing the player I was, but the player I could become.”
The day I went to visit Tom at Mount Sinai in the room he shared with another patient, Danny Hurley texted me and asked me to put him on the phone with him when I got there. Hurley was getting set to coach UConn against Seton Hall the next day, but his thoughts were with Tom. Lying in his hospital bed next to Slice Rohrssen, Tom was frail and weak but also talkative because he was on pain medicine. I put him on the phone with Danny and Tom wished him good luck against Seton Hall.
“Seton Hall was good to you,” he told him. “You met your wife Andrea there.”
Throught the speakerphone, I could hear Danny breaking up on the other end.
“Mr. Konchalski, no one saw more of my games in high school than you,” he said.
They laughed and talked about the games at the famed White Eagle Hall in Jersey City where Hurley’s St. Anthony’s teams used to practice. They talked about his decision to go to Seton Hall and how it all ended up working out for Danny.
“I love you, Mr.Konchalski,” Hurley said
As I said goodbye to Tom that day, I broke out in tears and told him I loved him, too. I said a lot of people did and were thinking about him. By the time he moved to hospice at the Calvary Hosptal in The Bronx on Saturday, there was a line of people waiting in the cold and snow to meet and pray with him. They came to pay their respects, just as they had those many nights at the Peach Jam. They came looking to pick him up and make him feel better, but often it was Tom who made them laugh and cry and think by recalling special moments they had shared.
That day at the hospital, I hugged him and then I shook his hand one last time. The handshake still looked like it was coming from across the room as he unfurled it from his bed.
“We will see each other again,” he told me, adding that no matter what religion we all were, we would meet again.
Godspeed, my friend. You are truly one of a kind. I hope we do meet again someday.