Tom Konchalski, who died Monday of cancer at 74, published the most influential basketball publication you’ve probably never read.
For more than four decades, until his retirement last year, Konchalski traveled from his base in Queens to gyms throughout the Northeast and occasionally beyond to scout high-school basketball players, compiling his findings in High School Basketball Illustrated, a highly esteemed, hard-copy-only newsletter devoured by hundreds of the top college coaches in the country.
A true basketball junkie — as a kid, he would follow a teenage Connie Hawkins from playground to playground in New York City to watch him in pickup games — Konchalski earned a reputation as a keen, honest evaluator of talent, one whose ratings and observations meant something, even to the college game’s biggest names.
“There was never anyone coaches trusted more than Tom,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright, a two-time NCAA champion, told the Washington Post last year upon Konchalski’s retirement. “He never had an agenda, except to give every kid he possibly could a chance to be seen and scouted. When he talked — or wrote — you paid attention.”
Typically sitting in the top row of whatever gym he found himself in, Konchalski would follow a handful of players at each game — never more than five or six — keeping stats on his yellow legal pad and evaluating players in 13 different categories, like their ability to shoot, pass, dribble, or go after loose balls. He’d talk to coaches, meet with players, and field tips on kids to watch from anyone who recognized him, following up on as many as he could. Nothing in his newsletter came from secondhand sources.
His mind was an encyclopedia of names and stats. A 2010 profile in New York noted that he began scouting Kyrie Irving as a skinny high-school freshman, even before he transferred to New Jersey basketball powerhouse St. Patrick, where he’d play for two years before being recruited by Duke and ultimately getting picked first in the 2011 NBA Draft. Konchalski, the profile points out, knew to look for Irving because he’d remembered scouting his father at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the Bronx two decades earlier.
Konchalski began writing for High School Basketball Illustrated in 1979, then purchased it from founder Howard Garfinkel in 1984, becoming both its publisher and sole writer. The title was something of a misnomer: The very first issue did indeed feature photos on glossy paper, but for most of its existence it was more bare bones — typewritten on stapled, 8½-by-11-inch sheets of paper. Every three weeks, Konchalski himself would stuff the latest edition into manila envelopes in his Forest Hills apartment, address them by hand, and send them off to coaches whose schools paid hundreds of dollars a year for a subscription. (And only to those coaches; it wasn’t available to the general public.)
There was no web version of HSBI, no Twitter account giving real-time updates. Konchalski didn’t own a cell phone or a computer or even an answering machine. The one time I spoke with him, some ten years ago, about the basketball program at Fordham (his and my alma mater), I was told by a colleague to try his number at a certain time in the morning, so as to not miss him while he attended daily Mass.
In a crowded scouting marketplace, Konchalski carved out a niche for himself, telling New York in 2010 that “I don’t have any grand plans to conquer the world. I go to the games I want to go to and if that can support me, fine.”
He also stood out by being, by absolutely all accounts, a good and decent guy — a rare thing in the often-sleazy world of recruiting. Konchalski’s friend Seth Davis, a reporter for the Athletic, used to call him “the only honest man in the gym,” and in the hours following Konchalski’s death, the biggest names in the sport praised not just his contributions to basketball, but his character. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski called him “a saint.” Villanova’s Wright called him a “good soul.” Kentucky’s John Calipari called him “one of the best human beings I have ever come across in my lifetime.”
In his remembrance, Krzyzewski also said that Konchalski deserves a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s eligible for the first time this year.