Konchalski has also been able to recognize when supreme talent isn’t enough. Lloyd Daniels, the six-seven Brooklyn guard who dominated New York City playground hoops in the mid-eighties, “had one of the greatest feels for the game I’ve ever seen,” says Konchalski. The famed coach Jerry Tarkanian had predicted Daniels would one day stand next to guards like Jerry West and Magic Johnson. But Daniels’s chaotic life away from the court—including attending four high schools and reading at a third-grade level—left Konchalski convinced that he would never gain entry to basketball’s pantheon. “There are so many wrong roads to travel that can keep you from reaching your goals,” he says, “and there’s only one straight path to travel that gets you there.”
Growing up in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens in the fifties, Konchalski built his life around two pillars: the Catholic Church and basketball. The Church of the Ascension, where he was an altar boy, was four doors down from his family’s rowhouse; Lost Battalion Hall, where he played pickup games, was a few blocks away. Konchalski’s father, who worked for the city’s Parks Department, took him to his first game at the cathedral of basketball, the old Madison Square Garden, in 1955. Before long, he and his older brother, Steve, were going by themselves to the Garden on Thursday nights to watch the college doubleheaders, and taking the subway to the best playground games around the city. “The first time I saw Connie Hawkins was at P.S. 127 on the first Saturday in August 1959,” Konchalski remembers. “He played in white clam diggers. They said he had one pair of pants—he was that poor. He was playing against Tom Hoover, who outweighed him by 50 pounds. Hawkins went up and blocked Hoover’s shot and knocked him into the fence. In the late seventies, the bar in that fence was still bent from where Hoover crashed into it.”
When Konchalski was a freshman at Archbishop Molloy, Steve, who is two years older, was a guard on the school’s famed basketball team. But Konchalski had no desire to follow in his older brother’s footsteps. “The most athletic thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he likes to say, “is jump to a conclusion.” Steve, however, remembers things differently: “He’ll probably tell you he wasn’t any good, but he wasn’t bad. He just lacked the competitive nature to play on an organized team.” Instead, Konchalski covered the squad for the school newspaper, documenting its frustrations as it repeatedly failed to beat its Catholic-league rival, Power Memorial, which starred Lew Alcindor. By the time Konchalski was a senior, Molloy’s coach, Jack Curran, let him attend the team’s secretive practices.
Other gurus tend to listen to hip-hop. Konchalski reads National Review.
His time around Curran—a legendary figure who just finished his 52nd season as Molloy’s coach—made Konchalski think he might make a career out of coaching, too. As an undergrad at Fordham, he began coaching Catholic Youth Organization teams—something he continued to do after graduation, when he worked as a math and social-studies teacher in New York Catholic elementary schools for ten years. But as was the case with playing, coaching basketball didn’t fit his personality, and he never pursued any coaching positions beyond the CYO. “He’s shy in certain ways, and I don’t think he likes being the center of attention,” says Steve, who has been the head men’s basketball coach at Saint Francis Xavier University for 35 years. “He’d rather be in the background.”
Being a scout allowed Konchalski to do just that. By dint of his CYO coaching, he had a bead on New York City’s best young players, and he began passing along tips to the handful of college coaches he knew—including Stu Aberdeen, who had been the head coach at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, where Steve Konchalski had been one of his players, before becoming an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee. In 1973, Konchalski helped Aberdeen persuade Ernie Grunfeld, a talented forward at Forest Hills High School whose family had emigrated from Romania only nine years earlier, to go south for college. A year later, he turned Aberdeen on to a then-unknown forward from Fort Greene named Bernard King. “They never saw Bernard King play,” Konchalski says. “I told them, ‘He’s better than Grunfeld.’ Twenty-five days later, King signed with Tennessee. It was one of the great steals in the history of college basketball.”
The “Ernie and Bernie Show” that electrified Knoxville and all of college basketball cemented Konchalski’s reputation as a scouting guru. And although he was known for a time as “Tennessee Tom,” coaches from other colleges began coming to him for his services. The University of North Carolina, for instance, wanted to see how a guard the school was recruiting, a kid named Mike Jordan from the basketball backwater of Wilmington, North Carolina, would fare against big-time competition. Could Konchalski secure him a spot at Five-Star Basketball camp, where he worked in the summers? He did, and Jordan’s subsequent performance there—he was MVP of the camp’s all-star game—cemented the Carolina coaches’ opinion that he was worthy of a scholarship.