Thomas Konchalski grew up in Queens, New York, with his brother Steve, sister Judith Ann, and their parents. His father, Steve Sr., was, as a young man, an accomplished amateur baseball player who took a sniff at the professional ranks before ascending to the position of ‘man of the house’ after his father’s untimely death. He eventually landed work as a gardener with the City of New York and rose, over the years, to the position of General Foreman where he oversaw a half dozen parks in Lower Manhattan including Battery Park.
Steve Sr. met his future wife, Marjorie (nee Coman), when they both worked for the Department of Parks. She eventually left her job and became a homemaker when the children were young, only returning to the workforce when Tom and Steve went off to college. She then held down a cashier’s job at Klein’s department store on 14th Street and Union Square, which helped to pay for her boys’ education.
“She was,” says Tom’s brother Steve Jr., “the rock of our family.”
The Konchalski boys served as altar boys at the Church of the Ascension, located four doors down from their family’s modest row-house. It was, by all accounts, a normal lower-middle class life. Steve recalls attending baseball games at the Polo Grounds with his brother and father, and — in that gentler, security-free era — running onto the field to get Willie Mays’ autograph and being part of a group of kids who escorted the centre fielder off the grass through a door in the outfield. These were the mid-1950s and early 1960s and the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers were locked in a fierce rivalry. The departure of both teams led to one of baseball’s first expansion teams: the Mets. “There was a lot of discussion back then in our house about which team was better,” recalls the Steve Jr.. “My family all liked the Giants, but I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.”
Steve Jr. also recalls being in Madison Square Garden on the night of November 1, 1959, when the New York Rangers faced off against the visiting Montreal Canadiens and the opposing team’s goalie took a puck to the face and had to temporarily leave the ice. When Jacques Plante returned to the Habs’ net he was wearing a crude white mask with oval-shaped holes for his eyes and a rectangular opening for his mouth and nostrils. “My father and his love of sport clearly had an impact on me and Tom,” explains Steve Jr., adding that both he and Tom tried their hand at various sports. It was Steve who, despite being smaller in stature (at six-foot-one) and thin, had the competitive fire and determination to practice day and night to become an outstanding basketball player. Although much bigger that his brother, Tom did not share Steve’s competitive fire or coordination.
“I was always a basketball junkie,” says Tom, but “I only played at the game. I can’t really say I played the game.” He likes to quip that, “The most athletic things I do are run water and jump to a conclusion.” Truth be told, as a teen the younger Konchalski wasn’t completely without athletic ability: Tom played a little basketball and liked tennis. He even turned his hand and eyes to work as a lines judge for tennis matches and became very good at it. Thanks in small part to a family connection, he worked professional matches, including a memorable one at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills featuring a hot-headed young New Yorker named John McEnroe. Of that match Tom remembers a particular line call he made that McEnroe angrily disputed: “I knew I was right, but I hesitated,” Tom recalls. McEnroe sensed the doubt and pounced, pointing to a different mark on the court and arguing the call so vehemently that Konchalski finally deferred. “I was right but he intimidated me,” Tom admits with a laugh.
What the Konchalski brothers shared was a passion for basketball that teetered on obsession. As soon as their parents allowed them the boys took to the streets and subways sussing out the best basketball games they could find. They would race to Madison Square Garden on Thursday nights to watch the college doubleheaders. But their greatest pleasure was watching playground games around the city. Tom remembers the exploits of playground greats like Tony Jackson and Roger Brown and revels in the memory of “watching Jackie Johnson — who was unequivocally the greatest jumper who ever lived — repeal all laws of Newtonian physics, with regards to gravity.”
His greatest praise is reserved for The Hawk: “My first hero in basketball was Connie Hawkins from Boys High,” says Tom, adding, “He would palm rebounds out of the air with one hand; not cup them, palm them. The first time I saw Connie was at P.S. 127 on the first Saturday in August 1959. 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 [and] 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.”
The Konchalski boys were so adventurous that they were often the only white people in otherwise all-black neighbourhoods. “I suppose we were naïve; it never occurred to us to be concerned,” says Steve, noting that the Civil Rights Movement was in full, emotional swing.
“We just loved basketball and wanted to watch basketball.” They had a lot to keep them busy. By the early 1960s, a Manhattan boy named Bob Cousy had just finishing twisting and turning across New York City’s courts before taking up residence with the Boston Celtics. The city possessed some of the finest players the game may ever know and some of the greatest coaches the game has ever seen. Tom recalls watching his brother Steve’s coach, Jack Curran, at Archbishop Molloy, “develop into one of the great coaches in the game at any level” and “witnessing a callow youth from Upper Manhattan by the name of Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor grow into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a true force of nature.
“This was the perfect storm. It was the truly the golden age of New York City basketball,” Tom tells me, while seated in a sports store in Jersey City, where he grants a rare interview, after sharing with me a meal of Chinese food and Snapple iced tea. “How could you possibly not fall in love with this game?”
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