One of a kind: Konchalski cements legacy as evaluator, great mind
For 40 years, Tom Konchalski has searched nation for top prep basketball talent
His recruiting bible, HS Basketball Illustrated, is a must-read for college coaches
Konchalski has no cell phone, computer or car but is more plugged in than anyone
Others tell you where they've been. We tell you where they're going!
FOREST HILLS, N.Y. -- Early in the afternoon of May 23, 1980, Roy Williams, then a restricted-earnings assistant at North Carolina, drove talent evaluator Tom Konchalski to the Seamco Classic, a prep basketball all-star game, in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Two senior prospects -- Sam Perkins and Matt Doherty -- were there, but Williams was preoccupied talking about a junior. He referred to him as "Mike Jordan", estimated his height at 6-foot-4 and asked Konchalski whether he could enroll him in the Five-Star Basketball Camp. Jordan, Williams offered, could bus tables to pay his way.
Sure, said Konchalski, a tall, gentlemanly figure, in his calming voice. The previous five years he had worked the camp, and gained influence with its director, Howard Garfinkel. Konchalski explained that Howie would place a call to Cliff Herring, Jordan's coach at Laney High, about arrangements. He also suggested Jordan attend Session I at Robert Morris College outside Pittsburgh -- the camp's Cadillac week.
The Heels' not-so-invisible hand guided the guard to Session 2, thinking he'd fare better against that week's level of competition. Konchalski believed it also fit better into their schedule to show Jordan attention. Once on site, Jordan got any shot he wanted during tryouts, easily elevating over opponents. "Defenders were guarding his belly button," the scout said.
Konchalski starred the pony in his racing form. Typically, he would funnel such observations to inquiring coaches, but he was assigned to work with Syracuse assistant Brendan Malone's team that week. When Malone's wife, Maureen, was injured in a moped accident and held overnight at a hospital, Malone rushed home to Rockville Center, N.Y. to be with her. Konchalski, who had no coaching experience above CYO, was charged with selecting their team. Malone left suggestions.
Upon his return for breakfast the next morning, Malone asked Konchalski which pick they drew. "No. 1," Konchalski said, smiling.
"Great," Malone said. "You took Greg Dreiling?"
Konchalski nodded. He had selected the Wichita, Kans., center.
"Then Aubrey Sherrod?" Malone asked.
"No," said Konchalski, who passed on the Chicago teammate of a young Doc Rivers. "I took Mike Jordan."
Malone's mood changed. He had known Konchalski as a "ubiquitous basketball maven" and grown to respect his word. The previous two years, though, the bird dog recommended players who never showed up. "Who the f--- is Jordan?" Malone asked.
By week's end, Jordan shared Most Outstanding Player honors and was named all-star game MVP. "No one cursed out Rod Thorn for drafting him," Konchalski says.
Over the last four decades, Konchalski has discovered thousands of players, giving him the ear of top coaches. A lifelong bachelor who graduated from Fordham University magna cum laude with degrees in political science and philosophy, he has charted prep stars' progress and forecasted their futures. Now 63, his bone-thin, 6-foot-6 silhouette is as familiar in bandbox gyms as Coca-Cola scoreboards. NBA rosters read like yearbooks to the self-employed editor and publisher of High School Basketball Illustrated. "He's basketball's Kevin Bacon," says Manhattan coach Barry Rohrssen. "Everyone connects back to him."
In the age of recruiting Web sites, Konchalski is the iconoclast. He introduces himself to each player he evaluates with a tourniquet handshake and wrings out 15 annual reports on his 25-year-old typewriter. He charges the 200 schools that subscribe to his service -- ranging from Division I to junior colleges -- $375. He addresses each envelope in black ink before mailing.
His operation has mom-and-pop elements. Having lived at home until he was 38, his mother, Marjorie, often answered the phone and took messages from coaches while he was at games. When she died in 1984, he went without an answering machine. Finally, for six months in 2003, he installed one. The tape filled quickly. Coaches, accustomed to using his bespectacled eyes as looking glasses, wanted input, but he could not fall asleep knowing there were unreturned calls. He permanently unplugged it. "He's the single toughest person in the world to reach," Louisville coach Rick Pitino says.
Konchalski holds onto everything (stats, phone numbers, movie lines) yet has not grasped the need to use a computer, cell phone or drive a car. He buys ribbons from the same midtown Manhattan salesman he purchased his typewriter from in 1984. "I'm a dinosaur in that store," Konchalski says.
His memory is eidetic. Garfinkel once showed him a photograph with eight players going for a rebound. The lens also captured a tattooed arm. He named all eight and the arm's owner. "He knows 'this kid's dentist is so-and-so; he was delivered at birth by this doctor'", says former Seton Hall coach and CBS analyst Bill Raftery.
Konchalski, a southpaw, curls his writing hand around yellow legal pads from the last row of bleachers in most gyms. Thirteen categories (points, rebounds, dribbles, penetrations, etc.) occupy his mind. "He has his own shorthand so no one will steal it," says Jack Curran, who coaches his alma mater, Archbishop Molloy (Briarwood, N.Y.).
Hoops absorb him. He hasn't exercised consciously since 1983, been on a beach in 32 years or ever left North America. He caught heresy in Doubt, a movie based in fall 1964, when Mrs. Miller walks with Sister Aloysius past a playground. A three-point line is visible on the blue-and-red concrete. Apoplectic, he says, "the line was not even conceived of then!"
While characters ranging from outliers to liars dot the recruiting trail, author John Feinstein refers to him in The Last Amateurs as "the only honest man in the gym." "There are no skeletons in his closet," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says.
But there are yellow legal pads. More than 8,000 pages, sans binding, sit on a shelf in apartment 19D in his doorman building off of Queens Blvd. "His life is like a tapestry woven with players," says Eddie Broderick, a longtime friend.
One thread extends from Jordan to Kobe Bryant. Before the 1995 McDonald's All-American game in Pittsburgh, the participants -- including Bryant -- watched a taped video message from Jordan, who ended, "I hope all of you reach your NBA goals someday. I'll be waiting and I'll be ready."
Jordan then winked at the camera.
Konchalski later spoke with Bryant at the awards banquet. The 17-year-old told him, "I can't wait to face the world's best." Bryant paused and said, "I'll be ready." He then winked.