Konchalski cements legacy as evaluator, great mind (cont.)
They were colorful: "He shoots more bankers than Bonnie and Clyde", "jumps so high he says hello to God three times" and "he scores like we breathe."
Garfinkel agreed to return to print in 1981, but put his pen down in 1984 when he sold his share to Konchalski for a "very nominal fee", but the two still sit side-by-side at several games per year. Ever loyal, Konchalski has remained Garfinkel's teleprompter, refusing to even change the publication's name despite the fact that only the first issue was a glossy-page photo booklet.
Last October, the odd couple's roles reversed at "The Clinic to End All Clinics." Pitino, John Calipari and Brown each spoke in a Five-Star reunion of sorts. After Pitino finished, Garfinkel spoke, "If anyone has seen a black binder, please return to the front."
From the outside, everything appeared to be in order in Konchalski's neatly-arranged world. He had eaten a blueberry muffin for breakfast, as he always does. His increasingly gray hair was combed and gelled, left to right. His golf shirt was buttoned to the top, like a schoolboy on his first day. His rosary beads were in the right side of his shorts; the San Damiani cross was in the left.
Something was amiss, though. He looked like Linus without his blanket. The pale Polishman's complexion reddened. His legal pad, Metro Card and a 50-cent black Bic pen were in the worn binder, which was nowhere to be seen.
Down stepped Bridgeport coach Mike Ruane, who accidentally took the pad at the sign-in table.
"I felt naked," Konchalski said. "My pad's my fig leaf."
Dennis (Mo) Mlynski's father, Joe, worked days as a machinist in the same drill press for 38 years. Mike Krzyzewski's dad, William, labored nights as an elevator operator. The boys from the northwest section of Chicago in the 1960s would go out for pizza on weekend evenings, and Mylnski would give his friend a lift. In July 1994, the Duke coach called his friend and asked for a ride -- not for him, but Konchalski, blowing through the Windy City. "Forget about Driving Miss Daisy," Duke's Krzyzewski says. "Let's do Driving Tom Konchalski."
Hop in. Storm clouds cover the New York sky on a Tuesday in July and Konchalski is riding shotgun to a summer league in Beltsville, Md. Before he gets out of Brooklyn, the borough of churches and players, he's lecturing: "The most amazing thing to me, rather than skyscrapers, is the transportation system. It's mindboggling to me."
Five subway lines, a bus stop and the last taxi cab stand in Queens are within three blocks of his apartment, but he remains a self-confessed pedestrian. Friends call him "The Glider" for his penchant to appear places without leaving a carbon footprint.
His longest car ride lasted 12 hours. It was summer 1978 to the 17-under AAU national tournament was at Marshall University. At the 9 a.m. game, a spindly guard from Chicago's South Side named Isiah Thomas cut through the Riverside Church's defense for 37 points. "I never saw so many people end up on the floor, foul line-to-foul line, trying to guard somebody," he says.
The day was still young. Konchalski hopped a ride 290 miles northwest to Akron, Ohio, to see forward Clark Kellogg play and then came back. They drove nine hours to see 45 playing minutes. "Well worth it," Konchalski says.
Basketball America welcomes Konchalski everywhere. Fletcher Arritt, the coach at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy the last 40 years, refers to the guest room in his house, set on a bluff 90 feet above the James River, as the "Tom Konchalski room." "Still, he's never given one of my players a five-star rating," Arritt says.
Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) coach Steve Smith adds: "Tom needs just two possessions to tell you what level a kid should be playing at. He's never been off with one of my kids."
He's crashed on coaches' couches, shared meals and gossip at diners, but it was the first assistant he met who impressed most. Aberdeen, the balding man who brought his brother to Canada, had migrated to Knoxville, Tenn., as a graduate assistant in 1966. While there, Tennessee's top assistant died in a plane crash. Aberdeen ascended. Konchalski explains his charm: "If you had someone come from France who was fluent in English but knew nothing about basketball culture, and you put them in a room with and told them to observe and listen to Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Hubie Brown and Stu [Aberdeen], for an hour on their topic choice, then said one of these men is fabulously successful, I guarantee you they would have said Stu."
Konchalski assisted Aberdeen, showing up at games on Tennessee's behalf. Garfinkel mockingly called him "Tennessee Tom", but, in truth, he was The Ultimate Volunteer, assisting in the recruitment of Ernie Grunfeld, whom Konchalski saw play in his first CYO game. Grunfeld, who chose Tennessee, says, "My parents listened to him because they trusted him."
Bernard King crowned Konchalski's legacy. Konchalski approached him after an all-star game in Hoboken, N.J., and recommended Tennessee offer the underrecruited overachiever. Twenty-five days later, the Vols, going on the blind word of Konchalski, landed the greatest forward in school history.
Aberdeen felt indebted. Konchalski did not want anything, but there was this Molloy senior. His name was Joe Dunleavy. He had first seen him in CYO, wearing a flannel Mets jersey and taking a layup off the correct foot. He couldn't afford college, and wasn't good enough to play. Could he be on scholarship as a manager? "Stu said to me one day, 'Your friend Tom is as close to a saint as you'll see'," says Dunleavy, who attended Tennessee and earned his degree in physical education.
Some stories sound like fairy tales. In 1986, Konchalski caught a whooping case of Hoosier Hysteria, a year before Hoosiers hit the big screen. The next season he arrived at Hinkel Fieldhouse before anyone collected admission at the door for the state title game. Inside, a janitor measured the rim's height, just as in the movie.
The road never shortens. As busy as accountants are in April, Konchalski is busier in July. On this night, he watches DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) play rival St. John's. Quinn Cook, a rising junior goes for 15 second half points, all of which Konchalski charts.
Page numbers read like an odometer. This is page 8,051. He lingers afterward, greeting coaches. Bob Wagner, who coached Len Bias, at Northwestern High (Hyattsville) asked. "Do you have a driver's license?"
"No," Konchalski said.
Wagner laughed. "You're nothing but a one-night stand down here."
The country boy from Catoosa County, Ga., was born with springs in his calves. As a junior at Ringgold High in 1972, David Moss cleared 6-10 in the high jump. He twice won states in the event, but his future was basketball. Parade magazine named him a fourth-team All-America and Tennessee signed him by the time he played in the 1973 Seamco Classic. Konchalski noted his strength. "The firmest handshake I've felt," he says.
Moss's legs were his most powerful assets, but one left him early. His freshman year in Knoxville he was diagnosed with bone cancer in his right leg. It was amputated at the hip. He survived six and a half years, and the Seamco Classic, which invited him back each summer, donated money to charity. Konchalski prayed to St. Peregrine, the patron saint for cancers of the bone.
You endured painful sufferings with such patience as to deserve to be healed miraculously of an incurable cancer in your leg by a touch of His divine hand ...
"My heroes are my mother, Mother Teresa and David," Konchalski says.
The meditation, which he recites daily, comes easily, but putting names to intentions demands stronger focus. When a family member of a player, coach or referee he's encountered in his travels falls ill or passes, he makes room for them in his alphabetical list, offering up what is now a 12-minute long reflection.
He's become the game's keeper, a breathing obituary overflowing with dates and anecdotes. Hospitals, hospices and funeral homes are common haunts. Three-to-four times per week he attends mass at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, around the 12th row, altar left. On holidays he visits with friends suffering from illnesses as dire as terminal cancer. "Tom must have stock in Hallmark," says Davidson coach Bob McKillop. "He projects uncommon compassion."
Moss lives in each greeting. Konchalski's handshakes double as history lessons, putting things in perspective for a landscape forever hurrying the old off the stage for the new to arrive. St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.) coach Bob Hurley diagrams it like a defense: "You have to go in wide and quick so he doesn't pin you on contact."
Few hold on longer than Konchalski. After the Jordan Brand All American Game at Madison Square Garden last April, he carried his worn binder in his left hand and made his way toward the locker rooms -- his 34th season now in the books. Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant -- still baby-faced and wearing a blue-striped shirt -- walked past the prep players. As he sidestepped agents and their runners, the 6-9 Durant approached Konchalski, who first saw him as a stringy sophomore at National Christian in Fort Washington, Md., six years earlier. Garfinkel stood to Konchalski's right.
"Mr. Konchalski," Durant said, "so nice to see you."
He extended his hand and shook it.
"Two years in the league," Konchalski said, still shaking. "It's like you're a veteran already."
Durant deferred that title, saying, "Almost, almost."
The vise grip loosened after 20 seconds and Durant walked away, smiling.
"That's respect," Garfinkel said. "Kids realize when they've moved on that Tom could be curing cancer with his mind and talent, but it's really worth it when you see the lives he's touched."