Konchalski cements legacy as evaluator, great mind (cont.)
Step inside. The white walls in Konchalski's apartment have no photos or posters. The black marble composition notebook on the top shelf of the walk-in closet has a correction on its cover. When purchased in 1962, "English" was written on the subject line. Now it's scratched out and reads "Basketball." Inside are lined pages with yellowed newspaper clips between them. Headlines above black-and-white photos include: "Alcindor to Visit UCLA".
"These are my Dead Sea scrolls," Konchalski says.
His obsession started young. In 1955 he took his first trip to a smoke-filled Madison Square Garden for a Knicks game. The next year he returned to see St. John's. He was a player of modest talents, pretty good at three-on-three in the P.S. 102 schoolyard but he never tried out for an organized team. His father, Steve, a reticent, sports-mad general foreman in the department of parks and recreation, took him and his older brother to leagues across the city. At the Brownsville Boys Club they saw a teen palm rebounds with one hand. It was Connie Hawkins. Konchalski, then in grade school, had his first idol. "I didn't pretend to be in the same universe," he says.
One overcast afternoon in 1959, Konchalski walked to the fenced-in court at P.S. 127 to watch games between New York and Philadelphia teams in the Ray Felix Summer League. Hawkins, so poor he played in white clam diggers, blocked a shot and bodied a larger opponent into a fence during the prep contest, but a pro-game player left an even more lasting impression. Wilt Chamberlain, fresh off a tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, wore a denim hat that made him look like J.J. Walker in Good Times. In the second quarter there was a jump-ball between Chamberlain and a 6-1 guard. Chamberlain leaped and tapped the ball in. Thirty seconds later a cloudburst sent 1,200 fans scurrying out of the wooden stands. "God said, 'Nothing can top this. I'm ending it now'", Konchalski says.
He was just a fan then. The first person he ever evaluated, he insists, was himself and he "failed." In reality, he began judging people at 13. He wanted to be a ball boy at the West Side Tennis Club, but was too young for working papers. His uncle, John Coleman, the chief of umpires, suggested he work as an unpaid linesman. "Isn't that Tom, though?" says Xaverian High coach Jack Alesi. "The ball's in or it's out. A player's good or he's bad. No gray areas."
Fuzzy yellow balls landing on white lines at speeds in excess of 100 mph blurred the process. During a John McEnroe match in 1977, Konchalski called a ball out. 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.
Basketball was a different story. Konchalski's curiosity knew no neighborhood limits, crossing city racial boundaries to watch the best. He and his brother heard fans at Rucker Park call out to Bill Bradley, "Show us what you got white boy!" Intimidating stares came their way. "We were in the minority in a lot of places," says Steve Konchalski, "but they respected that we wanted to be there."
Utopia was a seat in the stands. Tom watched Steve shoot his way to Acadia College in Nova Scotia, where he won a national title in 1965. Meanwhile, Tom stayed local, coaching CYO and reading philosophy on the long train commute. He considered studying for his Ph.D., but became a grammar school math teacher. Eight years in, he lost motivation to return to school for Greek and Hebrew studies, eschewing his doctoral path to work on Garfinkel's bible: High School Basketball Illustrated.
Not even Garfinkel has entered Konchalski's "inner sanctum." He moved into his current apartment 19 years ago after his mother died and his siblings decided to sell their childhood home. His brother, married with two girls and a boy and coach of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia the last 34 years, is now known as the "Coach K of Canada." Last Thursday, he reached the most wins in Canadian history (736). He owns a cell phone and reads about American hoops on the Web. His sister, Judy, lives in Pittsburg, Kans., with her son and works at a Wal Mart. Tom Konchalski's life's work sits on the wood-topped folding table overcrowded with brittle newspapers, outgoing envelopes and his typewriter.
There's a window into his past in the living room. When he opens the blinds, there, in verdant Forest Hills, stands the West Side Tennis Club. Hofstra coach Tom Pecora says, "His world's like The Land Where Time Stood Still."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Konchalski says. "Welcome to the City Game."
The man in the navy blue sports coat and maroon tie is your host, announcer and statistician on this night. He has vetted the 20 players on the rosters, making sure each has a 2.0 GPA and no official offers from schools. The 39th annual game is really a bargain bin for recruiters looking to fill out their rosters late in the calendar. It is April 21. Next to be introduced in the John Jay College gym is Patrick Parker, a 6-1 guard from Hillcrest High. Konchalski adjusts his microphone.
"His first name may not be Peter, but this Parker plays spider-like defense."
Garfinkel, sitting at the scorer's table, three chairs down from Konchalski, says, "Tom and I always loved our liners, but you know we started out as enemies, right?"
Konchalski irked Garfinkel. Mike Tyneberg, the man who brought Garfinkel into basketball and had since had a falling out with, would appear with Konchalski at New York Nationals games in the late '60s. Garfinkel, working with the New York Gems summer team, would glare at them. The stares went on until Dick Maloney, scouting for Holy Cross, broached a truce in 1970 when he brought Konchalski to Five Star. Three years later, Konchalski was handing out MVP ballots. "He was better at face-to-face evaluating than back-to-basket teaching," Garfinkel says.
To be at Five Star in the '70s was tantamount to watching flyboys at Edwards Air Force Base in the '50s. Each player was a hot shot proving his wares against the nation's best. Lectures stirred the groups as Hubie Brown, Rick Pitino and many others spoke. Konchalski, typically standing in a corner, took in the "para-religious" events.
Storytelling extended past the court's sidelines and Konchalski, the straightest piece of string in Queens, proved capable of spinning yarns as well as any Runyon character. "He loved to be like the good cop kicking around with the mob," Pitino says.
No tale was more unlikely than the union of Konchalski and Garfinkel. "If there were guns, one of us would've shot the other," Konchalski says.
Garfinkel had a tendency to fall in love with players' games, but Konchalski proved more modest. His economy of praise fell in line with his favorite moralist C.S. Lewis' thoughts: "Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."
The Konchalski brothers were about academics first. Steve earned his law degree before coaching. Still, he wanted to know how long Tom intended to rate teens. Steve questioned this in a call to Curran: "Can you please tell my brother to get a real job?"
Change was an allergy, and the stubborn Konchalski sneezed at it. In 1976, Garfinkel had hepatitis and only got one issue out. The recruiters would call, and the two bachelor bird dogs would bark out their thoughts. "You prepared carefully to get them," Krzyzewski says.