Last week, Konchalski announced his retirement after scouting high school basketball players full time for 43 years, the last 36 of them as the editor, publisher and author of the High School Basketball Illustrated newsletter. In his typically understated way, Konchalski simply put a note at the end of his most recent report that read: “After 56 years, this will be the final edition of the HSBI. I’ve decided to retire for health reasons.”
The news spread quickly in basketball circles. Konchalski, who is 73, had told just a handful of people that he has been struggling with his health for a while.
“It got to the point where, even if there were games to go watch right now, I wouldn’t have the energy to go see them,” he said this past weekend. “Maybe if things get better, I’ll un-retire like Michael Jordan. They can do a documentary on me. Instead of calling it ‘The Last Dance,’ they can call it ‘The Last Stumble.’ ”
Konchalski grew up in Queens and was a Catholic Church altar boy, and even though his older brother, Stephen, played basketball at Archbishop Molloy High, he opted to cover the team for the school newspaper. He graduated magna cum laude from Fordham and went to work teaching eighth-grade social studies and math. But his love of basketball never abated since his first trip to Madison Square Garden at the age of 8 with his dad and brother.
He began scouting for the legendary Howard Garfinkel in the early 1970s and went to work for him full time, doing most of the scouting and writing for HSBI while also helping decide whom to invite to Garfinkel’s Five-Star Basketball Camp. One relatively unknown kid he recommended was Jordan. Konchalski took over HSBI in 1984 and has resisted offers for years to take it to the Internet or expand its subscriber base, which consists of college basketball coaches only.
There isn’t a college coach in the country who doesn’t read HSBI or seek out Konchalski’s opinions on players.
“There was never anyone coaches trusted more than Tom,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said. “He never had an agenda, except to give every kid he possibly could a chance to be seen and scouted. When he talked — or wrote — you paid attention.”
Dave Odom, who coached Tim Duncan at Wake Forest, put it this way: “He is to basketball what Secretariat was to horse racing, what Sinatra and Streisand were to singing: just the best there ever was. When the Five-Star camp was at Honesdale [in Pennsylvania], all the coaches would go out to a place called Fireside after the night games. You had guys like Hubie Brown, Rick Pitino, Bob Knight and Chuck Daly — and plenty of others. We’d sit there and argue back and forth about players, coaches, everything basketball. Tom would sit quietly at the end of the table until finally we’d all turn to him and say, ‘What do you think?’ Tom would then tell us everything — I mean everything — there was to know on the subject. And we all knew that everything he said was true.”
Odom vividly remembers the first time he went to watch a game with Konchalski.
“It was a high school tournament at Fordham,” he said. “Four games. We walked in, and he said to me, ‘See you at halftime.’ I was confused. He said: ‘I’ve got to sit up on the top row. You don’t want to sit there.’ I realized he was politely telling me that he was working and didn’t want to be distracted. I saw him at halftime, between games, halftime again. But during a game, he didn’t want to socialize.”
Konchalski’s nickname among coaches was “The Glider” because he seemed to glide in and out of gyms so quietly, finding a seat on the top row and taking out one of his legal pads to take notes. At 6-foot-6, Konchalski is hard to miss, but he has an almost uncanny knack for not calling attention to himself.
I got to know Konchalski when I was covering Maryland for The Washington Post. My friend and colleague Ken Denlinger introduced me to Garfinkel at the ACC tournament.
“I can tell you about the stars,” Garfinkel told me. “But if you want the Encyclopaedia Britannica on basketball players, you have to talk to Tom.”
He was right. Not only did Konchalski never talk or write about a player based on secondhand information, he seemingly remembered every player he ever saw take a jump shot.
“The thing he did that was so invaluable was he picked up details,” Williams said. “Look, anyone can watch a kid and see he doesn’t have a left hand or he can shoot or he has a so-called ‘pro body.’ Tom would include things like the way he interacted with teammates, whether he wanted the ball in a tight game, his handshake, whether he looked you in the eye. If you weren’t sure if you wanted to recruit a kid, you could read one of Tom’s reports and know, for sure, yes or no.”
Konchalski had a colorful way of describing players. “My favorite was one he wrote about a kid in which he said, ‘He scores like the rest of us breathe,’ ” Wright said with a laugh. There was also a player who “can only be allowed to leap indoors if he’s in a skyscraper.”
But he was about more than a work ethic and a way with words. Seth Davis, who writes for the Athletic, one summer started calling Konchalski “the only honest man in the gym,” a reference to how dirty the recruiting game had become.
Konchalski is also a throwback — to put it mildly. He doesn’t have a driver’s license, a cellphone or a computer. He always has worked on a typewriter and then gets copies made to mail to his subscribers. His home phone has no call waiting and no way to leave a message. He travels by bus or subway from his Queens apartment, will fly when he has to and, when he is at an event, gets rides from coaches who are eager to spend a few minutes picking his brain.
“What can I tell you?” he likes to say. “I’m a Luddite.”
And while many scouts focus on players who will be one-and-done or will play in nationally televised all-star games, Konchalski has never stopped scouting the kid who might be a lower-level Division I player or even bound for Division II or III. His reports on those players were at least as detailed as the ones on stars.
“He’s Mother Teresa in long pants whose greatest loves are basketball and people,” Odom said. “He cares about everybody.”
And it’s fair to say, even in the oft-polarized world of basketball, everyone cares about him.