College basketball legends mourn scout's death – 'He was sent from God'

Pete Thamel
·10 min read

The man who wrote the first draft of American basketball history for the past half-century died on Monday. Tom Konchalski, the throwback talent evaluator who helped forge and define the basketball recruiting space, died from cancer at the age of 74.

Konchalski’s work writing the High School Basketball Illustrated scouting service for nearly four decades earned him a nomination to the Basketball Hall of Fame in December, and he’s eligible to be elected as a contributor this year. He’s credited with helping hundreds — and some estimate thousands — of high school players land college scholarships by evaluating and promoting them to college coaches. To anyone who has shared a gym with Konchalski since he began scouting in the 1960s, the worthiness of his contributions are as obvious as a prep evaluation of LeBron James.

Konchalski blended an uncommon gift for evaluating with a permeating kindness that defined him as much as his quirks, a sincere soul in gyms often filled with hustlers and shysters. In a sport known for fast talkers, it was fitting that Konchalski’s clear annunciation, vise-grip eye contact and deliberate delivery were part of his charm.

“He was a saint,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told Yahoo Sports. “There was something divine about his work and about him. He was truly beloved and respected by this basketball community for decades. He should be in the Hall of Fame, really, as a great contributor to the game.”

The lore of Konchalski’s legacy will long reverberate in basketball circles. For nearly a half-century, he banged out reports on a typewriter and became the trusted eyes of multiple basketball generations, a talent pericope at 6-foot-6 perched high above the gym or playground, peering over everyone from Connie Hawkins to Bernard King to Kevin Durant.

The full Konchalski experience included his trademark elongated handshake, encyclopedic memory and exposure to a New York City life delightfully frozen in the bygone Runyon era. Konchalski never got a driver’s license, never owned a computer and famously avoided an answering machine on the home phone in his Queens apartment. But Konchalski could tell you the leading scorers and rebounders from the Five-Star Basketball Camp all-star game in 1974 and about their brothers, cousins and former CYO teammates.

“His computer was his mind,” Krzyzewski said. “Once he was given a fact or saw a player play, it was there forever.”

Known as “The Glider” for his ability to float Waldo-style in and out of the country’s biggest high school games, grassroots tournaments and recruiting events, Konchalski lived on the frontlines of basketball’s future. His essence came from the grace he showed to everyone along the way — the A-list coaches treated the same as JUCO ones, the All-American players similar to the kid scuffling for a chance at Division III.

This column intended to build a case to promote Konchalski for the Hall of Fame, but quickly became so much more. The man who never forgot a name, score or statistic exuded such an uncommon passion that he’ll never be forgotten.

Krzyzewski: “What he’s meant to the game … he was sent from God, really. He’s Catholic like I am. I always felt like he was a priest and his ministry was helping of thousands of kids and coaches to take care of them.”

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim: “He contributed more than anyone in the Hall of Fame as a contributor. But he wasn’t famous, and he wasn’t on TV and he wasn’t some kind of a great writer. He was great at what he chose to do. He helped so many kids get scholarships that no one ever heard of. Just countless kids would get a scholarship to some place. He just helped kids.”

Iona coach Rick Pitino: “He was the kindest and most gentle person that I’ve come across in my lifetime in basketball.”

The breadth of Konchalski’s impact is daunting. The combination of his technology phobias, looming 6-foot-6 physical presence and overwhelming sincerity makes Krzyzewski admit it all sounds suspiciously made up. “It sounds like you’re exaggerating,” he said. “And you’re not.”

Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan called him “Mr. Konchalski” in a text Monday and made the claim of so many college-bound players he evaluated: “Would not have made it to Providence if it were not for him.”

Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga has known Konchalski since 1963, back when Konchalski was the manager of the Archbishop Molloy varsity basketball team for legendary coach Jack Curran. When Larranaga was a young assistant coach needing to find a post player to replace Ralph Sampson at Virginia, he took Konchalski’s advice on a lightly recruited player named Olden Polynice from All Hallows High School.

“He was not recruited by any other high-major school,” Larranaga said of the player who lasted more than a dozen seasons in the NBA. “He helped us get to the Final Four when he was a freshman.”

To distill Konchalski’s evaluations to just one player like Polynice would be an insult to the thousands of notes that he scribbled on yellow pads in gymnasiums around the country all those years. The dog-eared Konchalski anecdote highlighted by Kevin Armstrong on SI.com back in 2009 is about him getting chewed out by a Syracuse assistant in 1980 for choosing a lightly recruited high school guard from North Carolina named “Mike Jordan” on his team at the fabled Five-Star Basketball Camp. You don't have to watch "The Last Dance" to figure out who got the last laugh.

It’s hard to quantify how much coaches of a certain generation relied on Konchalski. Before the internet brought recruiting to the mainstream and film became instantly available, Konchalski’s hand-typed High School Basketball Illustrated report was the closest thing to viral.

“Everyone who recruited any player in the Northeast would call ‘The Glider,’ ” Pitino said. “You may have had the evaluation down, but Tom could tell you everything about the young man. Who do I have to call? Who is the difference maker in the family? That’s what Tom could do.”

Early in his scouting career, Konchalski helped identify both Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld as recruits in the New York area for Tennessee, scouting them on behalf of assistant coach Stu Aberdeen. Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes recalled the appreciation that both Grunfeld and King had years later when they had their numbers retired at the school in 2007 and 2008. Both invited Konchalski to the ceremony and made clear they wouldn’t have made it to Knoxville without him.

“I vividly remember 'The Glider' being there and being so happy,” said Forbes, a Tennessee assistant at the time. “It was pretty cool, seeing those guys who accomplished so much at the NBA level still remembering a guy who helped them get to college.”

After working as a math teacher, Konchalski left teaching in 1979 to work for High School Basketball Illustrated with Howard Garfinkel. Konchalski took the publication, known as HSBI, over in 1984. “He had a huge influence for a long time,” Boeheim said. “You didn’t know about kids until he told you about them.”

Konchalski was so indispensable that coaches like Barry Rohrssen, the former Manhattan coach and longtime assistant at Pitt, knew his near-daily ritual of going to church at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, which was held at 12:05 p.m. If anyone needed him, they’d best call by 11:45 a.m.

But Konchalski was best known for rarely being home, as there was always a double-header, scrimmage or practice to attend. Considering he never drove, Konchalski’s charm helped him find good company for rides. Logistics never stopped him from gliding into a big game. “You knew his evaluation was based on something seen, not something heard,” said Krzyzewski, who first met him back when Krzyzewski coached at Army in the 1970s. “He saw it, and then he wrote it. He was an amazing judge of talent at every level.”

A typical Konchalski encounter took place a few years ago along a wooden bleacher on the AAU circuit, as Konchalski spotted Notre Dame assistant Rod Balanis. This type of interaction played out thousands of times in gyms over the years.

Konchalski flashed back to one of Balanis’ banner nights as a high school player at DeMatha Catholic, meticulously recounting every detail from a game 25 years before. “December 12, 1987 vs. Molloy at Takoma Academy, 4-for-9 from 3-point range and 11 second-half points,” Konchalski said. He then veered to great players who went to William & Mary to play for Balanis’ father, George. Konchalski’s memory served as the connective tissue for generations of the sport.

That passion for the game was summed up by his close friend Rohrssen on Monday night. He recalled driving Kochanski home — a task many in basketball have volunteered for over the years — and they passed the first school where he taught math. “The worst day I ever had watching basketball was better than the best day I ever had teaching in a classroom,” Rohrssen recalled Konchalski saying. He added: “He had that passion. When you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.”

The first time I remember interviewing Konchalski came in 2002 when Carmelo Anthony’s Oak Hill team played LeBron James’ St. Vincent-St. Mary team at a high school showcase game in Trenton, New Jersey. He was a journalists’ dream, giving perspective like this quintessential quote from the famed ABCD camp in 2005: “Greg Oden is the biggest recruit in Ohio State history since Clark Kellogg in 1979 and maybe since Jerry Lucas in 1958.”

The last time I recalled seeing Konchalski was in the Southern District of New York federal courthouse for the trials of basketball’s underbelly back in 2017. He showed up to support Jim Gatto, an adidas executive tried in the case. Gatto is the son of a legendary New York high school coach, the kind of family Konchalski has known for a half-century and wanted to stand by.

In between, in many ways, it felt like he was everywhere. He’d pop up at Peach Jam, high school tournaments around the country and the occasional college game — St. Francis Brooklyn was a favorite because of subway proximity. “He touched all of us,” Krzyzewski said, “and never wanted anything in return.”

Pretty much anywhere with a rim and a run, Konchalski managed a way to find a ride. Along the way, he trailblazed a genre that’s evolved into top-100 lists, Instagram sensations and online subscription services.

“Anytime you’re around someone who is the best at what they do, they almost give off a mystique,” said Chris Caputo, a Miami assistant and New York native. “You just know they are different. He created a whole industry that’s never going away.”

Konchalski died in hospice care on Monday. And as the news of his death spread through basketball, coaches who knew him for five decades began bracing for a new reality.

“He was there all the time,” Boeheim said. “He was always there.”

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