I met Tom K. several times at the Hoop Hall Classic games that are played at Springfield College over MLK weekend. The first time I believe was when RJ Evans, was a senior in high school and his NFA team was playing on a Saturday morning.
I was amazed that before I introduced myself on the second meeting a year later, he remembered me by name. It was always enjoyable and insightful listening to him about the teams and individuals playing that weekend. Also, it was fun to chat and reminisce about former HC players he saw during their high school years.
He is a true gentleman. I hope that he will be able to recover and that he is not suffering at this stage in his life.
In the seedy world of scouting services/AAU/etc., where virtually everyone has an ulterior motive, I have found it amazing how universally loved Konchalski was by everyone from the Trumball, CT high school coach in Davis's article up to Coach K and Roy Williams + everyone in between.
Full Davis article -- tributes like this shouldn't be behind a paywall: Davis: Basketball will miss Tom Konchalski. I will miss my friend By Seth Davis Feb 8, 2021 25
I think I’ll miss his handshake the most. He always squeezed too tight. It hurt a little. Then he’d pull you closer and maintain that grip for as long as the conversation lasted. He asked how you were, because he really wanted to know how you were. Then he asked about your spouse and your kids by name, because he remembered everybody’s name. He gave you that goofy smile, sitting atop his lanky 6-foot-6 body, framed by a tight haircut and oversized ears. He was tall enough to be a four-star forward, but if you asked him whether he ever played the game he’d quip, “The most athletic thing I ever did was jump to a conclusion.”
I’ll miss his voicemails too, like the one he left for me last April 16. It was my 50th birthday. Along with the birthday wishes he added how sad he was that the 2020 NCAA Tournament had been canceled, not just for the lost games but also the missed opportunity to see me pop up on TV during halftimes. “I feel like I’ve been deprived of something that makes me very happy,” he said.
My heart is heavy as I write this, having just learned that Tom Konchalski, the legendary high school basketball talent scout and my friend for nearly 30 years, died Monday morning after a long illness. He was 74. I feel like Tom and I had a special relationship, but I recognize there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who feel the same way. Konchalski was not well-known to the public, but he is being mourned by countless people who were touched by the man and the sport he loved, one mangled handshake at a time.
The news of Tom’s death came, appropriately enough, on a phone call from Vito Montelli, himself a legendary former coach at St. Joseph High School in Trumbull, Conn. I first met Tom while covering Vito’s teams in the early 1990s for the New Haven (Conn.) Register. It was my first job out of college and Vito’s teams were always among the best in the state, so naturally, Tom was at a lot of his games. I was immediately intrigued. Tom was the reporter, writer, editor, evaluator, typist, envelope stuffer and stamp licker for High School Basketball Illustrated, a subscription newsletter focusing on players in the Northeast. For a high school basketball reporter, he was an invaluable source of information. For a young man full of big dreams and prodigious doubts, Tom was an invaluable friend.
He was also a fascinating character, one who could rattle off players, games and stats for games that were played decades ago. He was a ubiquitous basketball vagabond with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. I told my editor I wanted to write a feature story on him, but when I mentioned the idea to Tom he demurred because he didn’t think he merited a story. He let me do it anyway, because he was too nice to say no.
We did the interview at a high school, of course. He agreed to meet me an hour before tipoff. We found a small office down an empty hallway and talked. A few days later, I left messages for Roy Williams and Rick Pitino, who were coaching at Kansas and Kentucky, respectively. Those guys weren’t returning a whole lot of phone calls from high school beat writers back then, but both called me back immediately. Anything for Tom, they said.
Tom’s story was as simple as it was endearing. He had a brother, Steve, who is a college basketball coach in Canada, but Tom never married or had children. The man loved basketball, full stop. When he was growing up in Queens, N.Y., he would spend his free time riding subways and buses to catch the action at all the top playgrounds, or a doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. His first blacktop idol was Connie Hawkins. Tom was a devout Catholic who attended Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens and then Fordham University, where he was a political science and philosophy major.
After college, Tom took a job teaching math at a grammar school, but he still spent most of his free time watching hoops. His rapidly budding network of friends soon included Howard Garfinkel, the founder of Five Star Basketball Camp. Konchalski offered to help out that summer. He moved so smoothly from court to court that a young coach at Xavier named Pete Gillen dubbed him the Glider. It stuck forever.
Konchalski and Garfinkel teamed up to produce HSBI, but Konchalski soon took it over. Even as the newsletter grew in popularity, Konchalski kept the operation modest. He charged less than he could have for subscriptions and never looked to increase his profits. I asked him why for that 1994 story in the Register. “Happiness consists in simplifying your life, not in proliferating your wants,” he replied. “The more things you want, the more potential there is to be unhappy.”
His work habits were strictly old school. Computer? Tom thought he went modern when he acquired an electric typewriter. He never owned a car either. Why bother when you have the subway and Amtrak? Not to mention there was always someone — a coach, a reporter, a parent, a fan, a friend — willing to pick him up from the station and take him to the game. I remember when I called him up one day (his number is one of the few I still recall by heart) and learned he had gotten an answering machine. “This is Tom Konchalski,” the voice on the recording said. “After you recover from the shock, please leave me a message.” He ditched the machine after a few months. Too much trouble.
Konchalski didn’t often travel far, but he hit the recruiting circuit every July, and he always made it to the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C. While the games were going on, he would stand quietly on the top row of the bleachers, scrawling stats with his left hand onto a yellow legal pad using a Bic ballpoint pen. He stood there because he wanted to focus on his work, but when the game was over, he would linger and chat with everyone and anyone. Lord help you if you were waiting on him to leave. I used to tease Tom that it took him five minutes to tell a 30-second story because he had to add every detail about who else was on the team, who the guy’s brother was, who his brother played for in high school, and how many offensive rebounds he had in the first half. I did love to tease that man. “What’s your new cell number?” I’d ask. His deadpan reply, quoting Dostoevsky: “Sarcasm is the last refuge of the weak mind.”
Tom especially loved interacting with the players. He seized their hands, gushed at how well they played, told them their stats and encouraged them to work hard and study and practice so they would get better. If basketball was his second favorite religion, then his newsletter and land-line telephone were the tools of his ministry. Nothing pleased him more than knowing he played a small part in helping a young man further his career and advance his education.
As I moved from the Register to Sports Illustrated to CBS Sports to The Athletic, Tom remained my friend as well as my touchstone. I didn’t need to plan to see him at a recruiting event — what was I gonna do, text him? — but I knew he would be there. He evoked admiration even from grizzled veterans. I remember standing next to renowned author John Feinstein in the parking lot at Fairleigh Dickinson at ABCD Camp as Tom approached. “Here comes one of my favorite people,” John said.
“Me too,” I replied. “I call him the only honest man in the gym.”
John smiled and said, “That’s exactly right.”
In 2001, I self-published a memoir about my experiences at summer camp. Tom bought it, read it, called to tell me how much he liked it, noted he saw one of the campers I wrote about play in high school, and asked me to give the boy his best, as well the boy’s father, whose name he remembered. If I went to a college game at the Garden, I would almost always see Tom there and get that handshake. In December 2010, I ran into him on a concourse at Barclays Center and introduced him to my wife and two oldest sons. I never had another conversation with him where he didn’t cut off my line of questioning and ask how they were doing.
We talked less frequently in recent years, but from time to time he’d leave a voicemail that made me smile. I heard from others that he was sick with cancer. I asked him about it and he told me it was true, but that he hoped things would be OK soon. I knew he was weakened by his chemotherapy treatments, but I begged him to come visit me in the CBS studio. It took more prodding, but he finally made it there last February. I delighted as he made a big fuss over Clark Kellogg, ticking off the names of all the other players in Clark’s high school class and rattling off stats from a summer all-star game where Clark dominated. Clark smiled and said, “I don’t remember all that, but I do remember I played well.” Lots of folks in our studio crew are New York City hoops junkies, too so they gathered around Tom as he opened his encyclopedic mind and loving heart.
When I learned on Friday morning that Tom was due to be transferred to hospice care, the first person I called was Vito Montelli. Later that night, I spoke with former Manhattan coach Barry “Slice” Rohrssen, who took close care of Tom. Slice told me Tom was still at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. As it happened, that’s a block away from the CBS Broadcast Center.
During an hourlong break on Saturday, I hustled over to the hospital. Alas, because of the pandemic, the hospital was only allowing three visitors per patient per day, and Tom had already reached his max. I was disappointed until I learned one of the people visiting him was Vito, who had driven down from Connecticut with his son to pay his respects.
The other visitor upstairs was Greg Shemitz, a fellow veteran basketball reporter. I called Greg on his cell and he put me on speaker phone. “Hey, Tom,” I said, “I’m just calling to find out who’s gonna win the Duke-Carolina game.”
Tom’s voice came through gentle but clear. “Duke,” he said. “The cardboard cutouts in Cameron will be the difference.”
Tom made sure I knew that Vito was there too. It was like a family reunion for the three of us. Tom told me that Vito had visited former Molloy coach Jack Curran before he died, and he also sat with Garfinkel in the hospital in his final days. The obvious implication was that Vito was now going three-for-three. The man was at death’s doorstep, yet he was still keeping stats.
I told Tom how much I loved him, how much he meant to me, how grateful I was to have him as a friend. “The best way to make good friends is to be one,” he said. Then he interrupted my tribute to pepper me with questions about my family. “Tell me about Melissa and the boys. What are they up to?”
I filled him in and we said our goodbyes — for the last time, as we both knew. Tom entered hospice a few hours later, made a couple of calls over the weekend, received his communion, and on Monday morning made his transition to that great gymnasium in the sky. People like Tom Konchalski don’t come along often, in basketball or in life. I know I’m lucky that I knew him and I’m glad he’s no longer in pain, but at the moment I can’t help but feel sad. I’ve been deprived of something that made me very happy.