Legendary scout Tom Konchalski was standing alongside one of the many basketball courts stuffed inside the Sewall Center on the campus of Robert Morris University. He was easy to spot. It might be a challenge to locate him in a crowd of players, but among the few reporters congregating to watch the action at the Five-Star Basketball Camp, someone standing 6-6 was certain to tower above the crowd.
Konchalski stood above other scouts figuratively, as well. Few ever have had the same eye for talent, for what it is that separates a good high school basketball player from a great college basketball prospect. Hall of Fame coaches sought his opinion. All-Star players recalled how he discovered them.
On that day in July 2000, I was visiting Pittsburgh along with my wife to spend a few days with family and friends. She was out shopping with her sister and our niece, so I had an afternoon to sneak out to the Five-Star Basketball Camp and take in the hoop scene. But I only had the afternoon. We were meeting later for dinner, and missing was not an option.
“You have to see this young man, LeBron James,” Konchalski said to me as I squeezed in next to him.
“Really? OK, when does he play? What court?”
“He doesn’t play again until tonight. You HAVE to see him,” he said.
The urgency with which he issued this declaration made it clear I was going to be missing something extraordinary, even historic. It was like being told by The New York Times theater critic that you had to get to a performance of “Hamilton,” at the Public Theater, before it got to Broadway and everyone discovered it.
Even that many years ago, however, I’d been married long enough to understand an afternoon hall pass expired when the afternoon was over. Konchalski seemed almost defeated. He knew how I’d have appreciated that moment.
Now 73, Konchalski is retiring from his life’s work of publishing the HSBI Report, the scouting service to which most every major college basketball coach subscribed, and which has carried him on a journey across more than 40 years and thousands of miles, not one of which he has driven.
A native New Yorker, Konchalski never owned a car, using public transportation for much of his travels. He also never bothered learning to use a computer and doesn’t carry a cell phone. He composed his scouting reports using a typewriter. He compiles them for coaches to peruse, and employ, not for public distribution.
He fell in love with the game watching Connie Hawkins and completed his last reports in a year that will produce such future stars as Cade Cunningham and B.J. Boston. In between he scouted Michael Jordan, who currently is being celebrated in “The Last Dance,” an epic-length documentary series on ESPN. Jordan got into one Five-Star Camp session on Konchalski’s recommendation and wound up as the best player there.
“Tom Konchalski is one of the most kind and sincere souls in basketball,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told Sporting News. “He truly lived for others, always revering the great players, respecting every player. I think he is the most honest and precise evaluator of talent ever. One of a kind, never to be matched.”
Early in Konchalski’s career, he helped Tennessee find Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King in New York City. The “Ernie and Bernie Show” remains one of the most revered periods in the history of Vols basketball, delivering an SEC championship in 1977 and five victories in six tries against SEC power Kentucky. It was not long after that success, in 1979, that Konchalski chose to leave his job as a schoolteacher and scout full time for Howard Garfinkel, the originator of the Five-Star camps who owned HSBI. Konchalski subsequently purchased the service from the man known to all of basketball as “Garf” and continued until now.
Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich told Sporting News he followed Konchalski’s work, “Only for like 40 years! I am so sad. There may be more scouting services, but there will never be another Tom Konchalski. He is an icon, and truly loved by the entire basketball world. This is the end of an era.”
For the past decade or so, basketball writer Adam Zagoria has been Konchalski’s “chauffeur and roommate,” mostly at the annual Nike EYBL at the Peach Jam tournament in North Augusta, S.C.
Those are long days, with four to six games occurring simultaneously and often running from 9 a.m. well into prime time. Konchalski is so respected that Zagoria often would find himself frustrated by the mere act of trying to leave the community center gymnasium when the games were complete.
“It’s 11 o’clock at the end of the day and you want to go out and get some food … and it takes an added 30 minutes because everybody wants to talk to him with him and spend some time with him,” Zagoria told SN. “I’m not going to lie: That gets a little frustrating.
“Last year in the parking lot, we ran into Jamal Mashburn. He was there to watch his son. Jamal’s face lit up when he saw Tom, couldn’t have been happier to see him and shake his hand. So we spent another 10-15 minutes standing in the dark, listening to Jamal talk about how Tom first scouted him and was one of the first people to evaluate him.”
Konchalski owns an astonishing memory of the players he scouted; players who’d been in his reports would tell stories about how, even decades later, he would recognize them and immediately rattle off what school they’d attended and some of their old teammates.
He also owns an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. When returning last winter from the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., a three-day tournament for top high school teams, Konchalski and Zagoria stopped at a diner and began to discuss where this past season’s Montverde Academy team, featuring Cunningham and Florida State-bound Scottie Barnes, would rank among the best high school teams ever.
Konchalski told Zagoria the three best high school teams ever were the Power Memorial teams featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor) from 1963 to 1965. He also cited the Power Memorial’s 1970 team with Len Elmore, Jap Trimble and Ed Searcy, the early 1980s Baltimore Dunbar teams featuring Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues and David Wingate, and the 1988 Jersey City St. Anthony’s team that included Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere and Jerry Walker.
Zagoria thought that was worth sharing with the world, so he put Konchalski’s thoughts on Twitter.
Almost immediately, Zagoria received a response from Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith, eager to learn where the best Oak Hill teams might fit into that discussion. When Konchalski spoke, the basketball world was listening.