Tom Konchalski, slim, wiry, 6-foot-6, was as good a New York City high school basketball “player” as I’ve ever seen. Yet while at Archbishop Molloy in the early to mid-’60s, he never scored a point. Indeed, the legendary coach Jack Curran never even gave him a uniform.
What he’s always had is an unparalleled love for the game, a passion and dedication none can teach. Yesterday, he entered a hospice, battling his most formidable opponent, metastatic cancer, for the past two years. In many ways, he’s the clear victor. This winning soft-spoken man in his 70s, with a photographic memory, who daily attended 12:05 p.m. mass at his local Forest Hill church, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, has done nothing but embrace kids, help them, chronicle their careers and guide them. Tom never said a bad word about anyone. Never — the Holy Priest of Hoops, sincerely devout.
Always above board, he has risen to the point that if any college coach in the country ignored his astute analysis they would end up unemployed, peddling insurance or making cold calls on Wall Street.
As he got older, starting out essentially as the cub reporter to the peripatetic guru, Howard Garfinkel, Tom evolved into (and he will hate this) a cult-like figure. Dominating the huge stage of national high schools and AAU, he was always a New Yorker first. He would walk into a city gym and balls would stop bouncing, eyes would stare, unblinking, and whispers of his anointed name would spread across the bleachers. He was Willie Mays showing up to a Little League game, or Jerry Garcia singing at a school prom.
Yet, at his core, Tom gives the word “gentleman” its true meaning. He is as good a listener as I’ve ever been around. Coaches, in all their self-assurance, convinced themselves they were his best friend and wore that as a badge of honor. They took pride, running to him as if Richard Pryor in “Brewster’s Millions,” showering all with dollar bills.
He stood smiling, friendly, always with a firm handshake, his signature “move to the hoop.” He looked you straight in the eyes, remembering everything you had ever told him, still shocking you each and every time.
“How’s Luke?” referring to my youngest son. “When is Jake’s next game?” inquiring about the eldest. “Did Sam sign with Brown yet?” checking in on the middle.
Then, with his slightly bent posture, his yellow legal pad and ballpoint at the ready, he would ascend to his usual spot near the top of the stands, shaking hands of admirers along the way. Often they were anxious parents fantasizing he’d bless their offspring, or former players whose achievements big and small he remembered as if verse. He’d sit erect, noting possession by possession, player, number, shots taken, made and missed, rebounds, steals, assists, blocks, deflections, instantly committing all to memory. Ten thousand pages of Sanskrit, according to his pal Coach Barry Rohrsen.
On a New York City Marathon Sunday, had to be late 1980s, early ’90s, I was walking home, down First Avenue, as the runners were heading to The Bronx. Tom’s stork-like body loomed high through the six-deep crowds. I shouted a question with an answer unknown to all, “Where’s Kenny Anderson going?” Acutely aware of my deep ties to Bobby Cremins, with whom I had attended college, Tom smiled and said, “Georgia Tech,” a vivid twinkle in his eye.
A few years ago, I was asked to create a basketball map of NYC to commemorate the city hosting the NBA All-Star game. With the blessing of then-new commissioner Adam Silver, I brought in a partner, Tom Konchalski, whose encyclopedic knowledge towered above even the League’s own historian, Paul Hirschheimer, no slouch himself, and Peter Vescey. We would laugh over lunch as we laid out every prominent park and gym, high school player and coach in the five boroughs since the ’30s. Only Tom knew more, but he would never let on — until we got to Staten Island. The room went quiet for the often neglected and forgotten borough, and he was forced to fill us in on every iota.
I’m going to give Tom a call on his cell today. Oops. No way. He never had one. Well, I’ll type him an email. Nope. No computer. Ah, then I’ll leave him a voicemail on his answering machine. Again, no luck with that one. Well, if his land line isn’t busy, maybe I can ask him to pick me up at the bar in Queens on the way to a game at Molloy. Breslin-like, though, he also never got a driver’s license, always getting lifts from his secret network of friends, devotees and disciples.
And there, on the walls of Jack Curran’s divine home, outside the Molloy gym, hang the photos of their great ones — Kevin Joyce, Bobby Carver, Brian Winters, Kenny Smith, Kenny Anderson and I’m sure soon Cole Anthony. Tom Konchalski is there, the gentle giant, big man, dignified, he offers the greatest skill of any player — “a giver.”
Dan Klores is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and playwright. He is also the founder of the New York Renaissance.