That’s because the phone won’t ring on any of those days — Easter, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas — with the voice on the other end wishing me a “Happy [fill in the blank]” and then starting the conversation with the following question: “How are Christine, Danny, Brigid and Jane Blythe?”
Those are the names of my wife and three children, and that was the way Tom Konchalski always began his holiday calls. He added Jane’s middle name because he liked the way it sounded. How much a part of the holidays were Tom’s phone calls? Christine, who never met him, would ask me what time she thought he would call on Thanksgiving or Christmas to figure out when to schedule dinner.
Tom, who was without question the most trusted and respected high school basketball talent scout ever, died Monday at 74 after a long, difficult bout with cancer. To say his death will be mourned in the basketball world is a monumental understatement.
Shortly after Tom went into hospice Friday, I was talking to Maryland Baltimore County Coach Ryan Odom — whose dad, former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom, was one of Tom’s closest friends — about the impact Tom’s death would have on basketball.
“It’ll be like when Dean Smith died,” Ryan said. “Everyone will mourn.”
There’s one difference, and this isn’t meant as a put-down of Smith in any way. Like any successful coach, Smith had people who didn’t like him — if only because he won so often.
Tom Konchalski had no enemies. None.
He never drove a car, but he never needed one when he attended games, summer camps or tournaments, because coaches would line up to offer him a ride if only to pick his remarkable mind for a few minutes.
“One of the best people I’ve ever known,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Friday when the news that Tom was in hospice began to spread.
When Krzyzewski went to summer camps to scout, he had a very short list of people he would go to dinner with between sessions. If he was in the same place as Konchalski, he would find him — inevitably on the top row of the bleachers someplace — and say, “Come have supper with us.”
My friendship with Konchalski began in 1979 when, as a very young Washington Post reporter, I attended something called the Boston Shootout, which was then a prominent summer tournament. I went, not only to see good young players, but because events like that were a great place to get to know college coaches.
It was Tom Abatemarco, then an assistant at Maryland, who pointed to a very tall man with jet-black hair standing on the back row of a bleacher and said, “You really want to know what’s going on, that’s the guy you should be talking to.”
He was right. Tom was polite to a fault and was willing to answer any question about anyone. His only request was that I not ask him questions while he was watching a game — that was his work time. “I owe it to every kid I scout to be paying full attention when I’m writing a report on them,” he told me early in our friendship.
As the years went on, I called Tom more and more often — not just for his critiques on players but because he knew everyone and everything in college basketball. I remember when Joe Harrington, then the coach at George Mason, hired a young assistant named Rick Barnes. “Get to know Rick,” Tom told me. “He’s going to be a star.”
My only complaint with Tom was that he was often impossible to reach. He lived in the Forest Hills neighborhood in Queens — he had grown up in the borough and graduated magna cum laude from Fordham — and did not have call waiting on his phone. He briefly had an answering machine, but he got rid of it because he got too many calls he didn’t want to return and he couldn’t claim not to know someone had called when he still had the machine. He never owned a computer, and he would not have been able to get on the Internet if you paid him to do it. After a while, I made a point of having him tell me his travel schedule so I could be sure to see him in person.
There were times he would come to Washington to see a couple of games in a day and then go straight back to New York. I would pick him up at Union Station, go to the games with him, grab something to eat — Tom loved Mel Krupin’s deli — and drop him off to take a late train home. I treasured those days. It was like working toward a PhD in basketball — past and present. To the very end, Tom’s memory was extraordinary.
Those holiday phone calls never lasted less than an hour. After I had filled him in on my family, we would start talking hoops. Tom started out as a scout in the early 1970s, working for the legendary Howard Garfinkel, who founded the first important national summer basketball camp — Five-Star — in the 1960s and, at the same time, the “High School Basketball Illustrated” scouting report. When another of the NCAA’s silly rules made it verboten to run both a summer camp and a scouting service, Garfinkel sold HSBI to Tom, who was by then writing it anyway. For the next 36 years, Tom typed his reports on his typewriter, took them to be copied and mailed them out to subscribers. I was on the subscription list — but he refused to let me pay.
“I’m not taking your money, Coach,” he would say, whenever I brought it up. (Tom and I called each other “Coach,” mostly as a way of making fun of coaches who honestly believed that “Coach” was their first name.)
Seth Davis of the Athletic best summed up how basketball people felt about Tom: “The only honest man in the gym,” he said one day as we walked into a summer camp gym in which Tom might very well have been the only honest man.
Tom loved all sports — he worked as a linesman at the U.S. Open tennis tournament and later as an usher on the old grandstand court. But his first love was basketball; he had grown up going to Madison Square Garden with his father and older brother, Steve, who coached at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia for 45 years and is Canada’s all-time winningest college coach. When the court at St. Francis Xavier was named for him several years ago, Tom joked proudly, “Now there are two Coach K courts: one at Duke and one at St. Francis.”
During the pandemic, before his health made it impossible for him to get out much, Tom went to outdoor AAU games even though no one was allowed to sit courtside. “You could watch through a fence,” he said. “It really wasn’t bad at all.” He paused. “It was basketball. That was all I needed.”
He announced his retirement in May with a note at the end of his final HSBI report saying it would be the last.
During our call on Christmas, he told me his doctors had taken him off the experimental treatment he had been on for a few months. “The tumors are still growing,” he said. “There might be some chemo that can help. We’ll see.”
Tom was never a complainer. Whenever we talked about the cancer, even on Christmas when he admitted he was in constant pain and couldn’t taste food, he would say, “A lot of people have it a lot worse than me.”
This week, the entire basketball world has it worse than Tom — because we don’t have him anymore. I have lost a loved one. And the holidays will never be the same.