Konchalski and scouts like him are called “gurus”—and the going for gurus has never been so good. College-basketball fans’ insatiable (and Internet-fueled) desire for information about up-and-coming players has made high-school-hoops scouting a big business. The web is now crowded with sites like the Hoop Scoop Online and Hoopmasters, Prep Stars and MaxPreps, all of which cater to fans who feel compelled to learn everything they can about the teenage pituitary cases who may one day play for their favorite college team. “I thought I was going to price the average fan out,” says Clark Francis, the Hoop Scoop guru who charges an annual $499 subscription for access to his site, “but he continues to buy it.” And corporate America has taken notice. In 2005, Fox acquired Scout.com, which primarily covers college basketball and football recruiting, for $60 million. Two years later, Yahoo bought Scout.com’s main competitor, Rivals.com, for $100 million.
Konchalski, however, has not gotten in on the gold rush. While the HSBI Report carries a hefty $400-a-year price tag, he sells his newsletter only to college coaches, about 220 of whom subscribe. What’s more, HSBI is a print-only publication—coming out sixteen times a year on stapled 8½-by-11-inch sheets of paper that Konchalski stuffs into manila envelopes. (HSBI stands for High School Basketball Illustrated, but the newsletter hasn’t included images in decades.) This old-school approach is partly owed to Konchalski’s technophobia. He does not own a computer (or a cell phone or even an answering machine), and at 63 years old, he says he is past the point of learning how to use one. Still, Konchalski has refused various entrepreneurs’ offers to set up websites for him. He simply seems characterologically incapable of ushering HSBI into the online era. While other gurus tend to sport sweatsuits and listen to hip-hop, Konchalski favors sweaters with elbow patches and loafers; his preferred leisure activity is reading National Review. “I don’t have any grand plans to conquer the world,” he says. “I go to the games I want to go to and if that can support me, fine.”
From his base in Forest Hills, where he lives alone in a one-bedroom in an apartment building off Queens Boulevard, Konchalski attends games from Maine to West Virginia, with occasional forays to places like Indianapolis (for the Indiana state high-school championships, a personal favorite). Summers are particularly busy: The camps and AAU tournaments run almost nonstop, and Konchalski has a chance to scout players from all over the country. His routine for each game is the same. Unless he has a seat on press row, he finds a spot toward the top of the bleachers near half-court and balances a yellow legal pad on his knee. At most, he’ll scout six players in one game—“Anything more than five is painful”—charting their performances in thirteen categories, from shooting and passing to their ability to grab loose balls. In the pages of HSBI, he’s developed a distinct vocabulary. A fleet-footed big man is “built like a bus, moves like a greyhound,” and a solid ball handler is “abstemious and efficient with dribble”; if a player lacks toughness, his “nose must calcify,” and if he’s a good rebounder, he’s “bestial in the pits.” It’s playful language, but there are high stakes involved: The difference between a player who “boasts more hop than Heineken” and one who “will elevate only in office buildings” can be the difference between a teenager who goes to college and one who goes to work at McDonald’s.
Aside from his personal eccentricities, what most distinguishes Konchalski from other gurus is not what he notices during games but what he picks up away from the court. He arrives at games an hour early to watch warm-ups and chat with the coaches. Then, after the games, he heads to the locker rooms for an hour or so—always to the losers’ locker room first, he explains, “because they need consoling”—to chat up the players, asking them about their families, their grades, their summer plans. He can tell a lot from a handshake. “Good eye contact, firm grip, not a dead fish” is always a good sign.
It’s these kinds of intangibles that have enabled Konchalski to spot future greatness in certain players. From the moment he first saw Kobe Bryant as a spindly ninth-grader at a tournament in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, he was impressed with his athleticism. But Konchalski wasn’t convinced that Bryant was destined for stardom until the end of Bryant’s junior year in high school, when he began working out with the Philadelphia 76ers’ strength-and-conditioning coach five days a week. “At the end of his junior year, he was 175 pounds,” Konchalski recalls. “At the beginning of his senior season, he was 185 pounds, and at the end of the season he was 195.” While the added strength obviously helped Bryant on the court, Konchalski was most enamored of what it said about his discipline. “When you’re 16 years old and you’ve had good success and all the big schools are recruiting you, usually you want to go to the beach and reward yourself,” he explains. “You don’t want to go to the gym and get stronger. The fact that he had that kind of commitment revealed something important about him.” Similarly, the first time he saw LeBron James, after his freshman year of high school when he attended Five-Star Basketball camp, he did not let James’s erratic jump shot shake his belief that James would be a star. “He was off the charts in terms of toughness and competitiveness,” Konchalski says, recalling that James played on two teams at the camp, necessitating four games in one day. “He just had a great competitive ardor.”