In 1979, Konchalski gave up his teaching job and went to work full-time as a scout, first for Howard Garfinkel, who founded HSBI, and then, after buying HSBI from Garfinkel in 1984, for himself. Although his decision to make his avocation his vocation initially surprised his family, they eventually made peace with it—so much so that his mother, with whom he lived until her death in 1984, used to take messages from coaches when he was out at games. “Tom could have done a lot of things with his life, and he chose to devote it to basketball,” says Steve. “Those days at Molloy and chasing Connie Hawkins from playground to playground—the game just got in his blood.”
And yet as much as the game is part of Konchalski’s life, he has managed to avoid the malignancies that have, in many respects, come to dominate it. Unlike some of his fellow gurus—who are forever trying to make their names by discovering new talent, with some of them now ranking the top fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders in the country—Konchalski does not scout players until they are at least freshmen in high school. “Only God knows who the best sixth-grader in America is,” he explains. “It’s hard enough to project two or three years down the road, but to try to project six years?”
Indeed, Konchalski is the rare figure in the world of big-time high-school hoops whose integrity remains unimpeachable. “If you’ve ever been around those summer camps, you walk in and out and you feel like you need to shower for three days,” says sportswriter John Feinstein. “But that’s not Tom. He’s the last honest man in the gym. He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks about a player. He’s not in it to try to get to know players and broker them to a school. He’s just trying to evaluate kids and give them honest marks.”
Konchalski views his scouting as an extension, in some ways, of his Catholic faith. “To the extent that you’re in a position to help kids, you try to do that,” he explains. “I don’t have an influence on them the way a coach or teacher could, but I think I’ve been able to help them.” If Konchalski believes a high schooler he’s evaluated is a good fit for a certain college, he will call that school’s coach to lobby on the player’s behalf. It’s rare he goes to a game at which someone, often a parent, doesn’t approach him with a tip about a player. “Parents always overestimate their kid’s ability,” he says. Still, out of curiosity but also duty, he tries to follow up on each one.
The most remarkable thing about Konchalski is his ability to be an unforgiving judge of talent—“If Tom has a flaw in his evaluation,” says Garfinkel, “it’s that he underrates rather than overrates”—without being a harsh one. As much as some gurus are eager to build players up, they’re also quick to tear them down, deeming them “bums” or comparing them to “a supermodel with herpes” if they don’t live up to expectations. But in Konchalski’s view, the players he’s evaluating, no matter how freakishly tall and chiseled, are still, essentially, children. “These aren’t professional athletes,” he says. “When these guys make the NBA, they become public figures, and I think fans are entitled to criticize them. But these are kids.”
On a gray Tuesday afternoon, Konchalski leaves his apartment and walks to the Forest Hills–71st Avenue subway station. He’s already been to 12:05 p.m. mass, and now he’s heading to North Jersey for a couple of high-school games.
These days, the best players in the New York area are increasingly found in Jersey, and even kids who live in the city are commuting to play for Catholic schools in Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Newark. “New Jersey’s contribution to basketball used to be more in terms of coaches,” Konchalski explains as he rides the E train to Penn Station. “But now, that’s where the players are. Rice and Christ the King are the only teams that can play with the New Jersey teams this year. And the New York public schools? Forget it.”
For subway reading, Konchalski has brought some clippings from USA Today, plus a biography of the Catholic writer Thomas Merton. Konchalski graduated magna cum laude from Fordham, with a degree in philosophy and political science, and he tries to keep abreast of developments outside of basketball. Still, the game has come to define all the facets of his life. “All the people I know are through basketball,” says Konchalski, who has never married. But that’s a lot of people. Konchalski has a photographic memory, and he does not forget a name or a face. “Every time Tom runs into a new person, he puts it into his memory bank,” says Kevin Foley, a sports-marketing exec. “He doesn’t have an iPhone or a BlackBerry. It’s uncanny.” Konchalski’s ability to navigate social terrain that would trip up most sixtysomething National Review subscribers is similarly striking. On some nights, he is the only white guy in the gym. “He knows more African-Americans than Al Sharpton,” says Ed Broderick, a lawyer and fellow basketball junkie who often goes to games with him.