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Basketball Scout Tom Konchalski Will Be Missed at March Madness

Nurses hurried in and out of room No. 443 at Calvary Hospital, a hospice in the Bronx, as they tried to make the newest patient comfortable last month.

His name was Tom Konchalski, and he was dying of prostate cancer. He had recently retired as editor and publisher of High School Basketball Illustrated, a witty and insightful tip sheet — always printed, never digital — for college coaches on the hunt for recruits. Many of the coaches in this year’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournament were devoted subscribers.

At 74, Konchalski, who never married, lived alone in a high-rise in Queens. Throughout the pandemic, he resisted offers of help, riding the subway into Manhattan to receive chemotherapy treatments. Only in his last days did he allow friends to drive him.

Upon arriving at the palliative care center, his blood pressure was 130 over 74. Konchalski, who described himself as a “hopelessly addicted hoopaholic,” knew numbers, and his were pretty good, so he started searching for games to watch on television.

On one channel, he recognized a referee from a wedding he attended 20 years ago. Turning to another, he expressed shock at the development of a player he once scouted. He saw beauty in ball movement.

“Ooh!” he said. “That was a nice pass.”

Konchalski watches a game in Brooklyn in 2013.
Julie Glassberg for The New York Times

Konchalski died 48 hours later as he recited the last decade of the rosary with two friends and his cousin, who had driven from Florida to be by his side. Also in the room was the black leather binder he used to chart prospects’ statistics. Instead of box-score figures, the last digits on the page were friends’ phone numbers; visitors dialed the numbers for him to say final goodbyes.

“Basketball has been my mistress,” he said, “but my faith is my lawful wife.”

The scouting report on Konchalski was etched long ago: 6-foot-6 southpaw, no cellphone, no car, no computer, never missed Mass. He was a technophobe with a tourniquet handshake, photographic memory and a reach that spanned generations as he scouted from Maine Central Institute’s campus to the City of Palms Classic in Florida.

The game consumed Konchalski from a young age. Though he never played organized basketball, he followed Connie Hawkins “like a puppy dog” from schoolyard to schoolyard, he said. He first saw Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) on a basketball court when the player was in the eighth grade.

Konchalski graduated magna cum laude from Fordham, considered pursuing a Ph.D. in classical studies and taught math in elementary schools. Then Howard Garfinkel, the chain-smoking kibitzer who founded High School Basketball Illustrated in 1964, gave him a part-time scouting gig, teaching him the business over meals at the Carnegie Deli.

Sabrina Santiago for The New York Times

With Garfinkel as his guide, Konchalski explored a new constellation at Five Star Basketball Camp, which Garfinkel co-founded. Coaches like Hubie Brown and Chuck Daly harped on fundamentals, Garfinkel blasted Frank Sinatra ballads at sunrise and elite players stayed in accommodations that Konchalski considered “anything but five star.” In 1980, Konchalski helped Michael Jordan get invited. Twenty years later, he stood next to a beaming LeBron James after he dominated as a sophomore.

In between, Konchalski honed his craft and meted out honest appraisals. When the N.C.A.A. instituted a rule, in 1983, that forced Garfinkel to decide between his report and the camp, Garfinkel sold H.S.B.I. to Konchalski, who continued to supply 220 subscribers with 16 reports for $300 annually. The report included everything from Preliminary SAT exams scores to Konchalski’s grade, the highest being 5+ and the lowest a 1 for players who, he asserted, “perspired more than inspired.”

Konchalski relished wordplay. When he rated Dante Calabria, a guard from Beaver Falls, Pa., he wrote: “Far more divine than comic.” He also shot straight. When Rafer Alston, a callow point guard from Queens, failed academically, Konchalski wrote, “good kid fighting lure of streets/will take herculean effort to graduate.”

His de facto office was the Georgia Diner in Queens, where he dished about recruits over matzo ball soup. When recruiters gave him rides, he narrated a neighborhood tour, pointing out St. John Cemetery, where mobsters like John Gotti were buried.

Sabrina Santiago for The New York Times

“Least vandalized cemetery in Queens!” Konchalski said.

But mostly he pointed out talented players. When Bernard King was a high school senior, Konchalski took note of him. King, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman Houses, had few suitors before Konchalski introduced him to Tennessee’s recruiter Stu Aberdeen. King committed, scored 42 points in his first collegiate game, played 14 N.B.A. seasons and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.

“I’m forever grateful,” King said. “Who knows what my life would have been like had he never been there?”

Konchalski shied from that kind, or any kind, of praise. In 2014, Guy DeFonzo, a retired police officer, was considering reviving the Monsignor King Christmas Tournament, a Brooklyn ritual that had gone dormant for a decade. To gauge feasibility, he met with Konchalski, who recommended teams to invite.

DeFonzo followed through, and Konchalski sat in the top row of the bleachers as DeFonzo took the microphone before tipoff. DeFonzo thanked Konchalski, then signaled for the stage’s curtains to be opened. Behind the curtains hung a banner emblazoned with Konchalski’s name and four words — Guru, Genius, Gentleman, Scout.

Sabrina Santiago for The New York Times

“He’s pale as it is, but he turned several shades of white,” DeFonzo said.

A few years later, Pete Gillen, the former college basketball coach, introduced Konchalski with praise at St. Thomas Aquinas College’s tipoff dinner in Sparkill, N.Y. Konchalski thanked Gillen for the “litany of perjuries” and apologized to fellow honorees for “lowering the property value in the neighborhood.”

Konchalski, battling cancer, retired quietly last May. When he recorded final grades for the 263 seniors he scouted in 2019-20, the report looked the same as ever: six pages, single-spaced. But on the last sheet, there was a death notice: “After 56 years of publication, H.S.B.I. Report is sadly being laid to rest due to health issues.”

He then cleared his throat. Instead of relying on the traditional passage of players from high school to college, big-time N.C.A.A. programs increasingly poached players who showed success at smaller colleges. Konchalski criticized “the rampant pilferage of talent” as “craven” before wishing subscribers continued success.

In retirement, Konchalski at last found use for digital devices. He stored his Swintec 1146 typewriter in his walk-in closet and started using the iPhone 11 a friend gifted him. He still made calls exclusively from his landline, but on the iPhone he learned to scroll the internet, which he had never done before. With churches closed during the pandemic, he watched Mass via livestream. He missed kneeling in pews.

Sabrina Santiago for The New York Times

His brother, Steve, who coached for 46 seasons at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, was unable to visit Tom because of Covid-19 travel restrictions. Of course, connecting with Tom was always a challenge. Steve Konchalski recalled one day in May long ago when he asked his brother about connecting again.

“Call me on June 20,” Tom said. “I’ll be home for three hours.”

Konchalski never left the recruiting trail. Last fall, he watched outdoor games in New Jersey with Omar Minaya, the Mets executive, and traveled to Gauchos Gym in the Bronx. Former Manhattan coach Barry Rohrssen accompanied him to St. Thomas More School in Connecticut to see a workout. At Greis Park in Lynbrook, N.Y. Konchalski reunited with players he coached to summer titles there in the 1970s.

“Tom loved reliving memorable times,” said Joe Dunleavy, one of the players.

In December, Konchalski’s name appeared on the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s ballot, as a contributor, for the first time. (Honorees will be announced in May.) When congratulations came, he resorted to his go-to move: deflecting attention.

On Jan. 22, as Konchalski’s health declined, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski mailed him a card.

Tom:

I have been thinking about you quite a bit. I know you are receiving some amazing treatment and it takes its toll on you. I am praying that this treatment works. Please stay strong and know that I am one of many who love and admire you!

Mike

Konchalski wanted no wake or eulogy. In late February, 80 mourners attended his funeral mass at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Forest Hills, and his urn was buried in a family plot at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. Afterward, Dunleavy, Rohrssen and 10 others gathered at The Pine, an Italian restaurant on Bronxdale Avenue.

Ronan Mullally, 17, whose father, John, provided Konchalski with the cellphone, had met Konchalski many times, but was confused after hearing stories about him.

“Tom was famous,” he said. “How did he not tell us?”

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