Tom Konchalski was peering into the future. It was the Monday afternoon of a long weekend, and the meat market that is big-time high-school basketball was taking advantage of the holiday to display its wares in the birthplace of the game: Springfield, Massachusetts. The man-children who play for two of the nation’s top schoolboy teams—Findlay Prep from Henderson, Nevada, and Saint Patrick from Elizabeth, New Jersey—were facing off in Springfield College’s bandbox gym, where, from his courtside seat, Konchalski was keeping a close eye on Saint Patrick’s senior point guard Kyrie Irving. Irving had just suffered through a miserable first half, and now, as he emerged from the locker room and began hoisting up practice shots that disconcertingly clanged off the rim, Konchalski offered a surprising prediction. “Irving is going to have a big second half,” he said. “He’s a quiet kid, but inside he has a competitive core. He got outplayed in the first half. It’s a matter of pride.”
Konchalski is in the future-seeing business. As the editor and publisher of the scouting newsletter HSBI Report—its motto: “Others tell you where they’ve been. We tell you where they’re going!”—he watches thousands of high-school basketball players each year, assessing their games in order to project the kind of player each will be in college. A player who receives a five-star rating in HSBI is projected to be “a major contributor” by his sophomore season for “the average nationally ranked [Division I] team”; a player given one star will be the same for “middle-of-the-road Division III programs.” More often than not—much more often than not—Konchalski’s projections pan out. “If Tom says a kid’s going to be a star, you can mark it down,” says Howard Garfinkel, a co-founder of the famed Five-Star Basketball camps. “He’s a very keen judge of talent.”
Irving is a “5+” player—the highest rating HSBI gives. Konchalski has been watching him ever since he was a skinny freshman on a lower-octane New Jersey high-school team, well before he transferred to the Saint Patrick hoops factory. He initially knew to look for Irving because he’d scouted his father, Drederick, two decades earlier at the Bronx’s Adlai E. Stevenson High School, where Drederick filled the two-guard spot expertly enough to land a basketball scholarship to Boston University and then play professionally in Australia. But upon seeing Kyrie, Konchalski soon came to believe that the son would have even more game than the father. In assessing players, he considers three variables: physical characteristics, skill with the basketball, and intangibles like intelligence, toughness, and competitive spirit. “If you want to equate them with Freudian terms,” says Konchalski, “the physical part is the id, the skill level is the ego, and the intangibles are the superego.” He was suitably impressed with Irving’s physical talents and ball skills—“Kyrie shoots a three like other people shoot a free throw”—and especially taken with his heady play. Now, as Saint Patrick and Findlay Prep began the second half in Springfield, Irving’s superego was suddenly on display.
Irving imposed his will on the game with an array of daredevil layups and a silky three, working feverishly to bring Saint Patrick back from a twelve-point deficit. Konchalski, meanwhile, recorded his prediction coming to fruition on a yellow legal pad—tallying not just Irving’s points and assists, but more-granular statistics as well, such as penetrations into the lane and shots off the catch and off the dribble. With nine seconds left in the game, Konchalski had marked Irving down for 29 points—twelve of them in the fourth quarter alone—but Saint Patrick still trailed Findlay by two. After a Findlay miss, Irving pushed the ball up the court and drove to the basket, drawing a foul with one second left on the clock. Irving, who’d made his previous four free throws, calmly stepped to the foul line and buried the first shot for his 30th point of the game. But his second foul shot rolled off the rim, and Findlay held on to win, 71-70.
Irving slinked off the court, his shoulders sagging. But the kid’s choke didn’t dampen Konchalski’s enthusiasm for him. In fact, just the opposite. Konchalski’s one nagging doubt about Irving has been that, in crunch time, he often looks to pass rather than take the shot himself. “Even if his teammate is more open, at that point in the game Kyrie is the one who should be taking that shot,” Konchalski said. The fact that Irving had done so against Findlay, poor results notwithstanding, made Konchalski even more enamored of him, and he began, once again, to wax oracular. “Mike Krzyzewski has won three national championships at Duke with point guards from New Jersey Catholic high schools,” he noted. “Two with Bobby Hurley from Jersey City Saint Anthony and one with Jason Williams from Saint Joseph in Metuchen.” Irving, Konchalski added with something of a nod to destiny, will be matriculating at Duke this fall.
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.”
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.
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.
At Penn Station, Konchalski and Broderick meet up and board the train to Elizabeth. There, they are picked up by their chauffeur for the night, a retired Elizabeth cop Konchalski met about twenty years ago at the wedding of a basketball player he had scouted. The main event of the evening is a marquee game between the public-school powerhouse Plainfield and Saint Patrick, but first Konchalski and his friends are going to take in a small-time game between two public schools, Linden and Scotch Plains. They arrive at the cramped Linden gym, where the school’s coach, Phil Colicchio, comes over to say hello.
“How’s the season, coach?”
“It’s going great,” Colicchio says. “I absolutely love this team. I don’t have any D-1 players and they play fantastic.”
He tells Konchalski about one of them, a senior with a 1580 SAT reading-and-math score and a 3.5 GPA. At six three, the player is severely undersize for his power-forward position, but he’s hoping that his marks will get him some looks from Division III schools. Konchalski knows that his evaluation could be determinative. He smiles, takes out his yellow legal pad, and gets ready to go to work.