The unlikely and unyielding success of Tom Konchalski, the New Yorker considered by many to be America’s finest and most influential basketball scout. By David M. Napier
Travelling to Rucker Park is, for the die-hard basketball fan, akin to a person of deep faith making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the summer of 2018, I returned to the fabled basketball court at 155th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in the Harlem which has long been the home to basketball’s version of the gods; a place where fans have pressed up against the chain-link fence or sat on roofs with their feet dangling perilously over the edge as they watched some of the best basketball players in the world put on displays of sheer athleticism that became the stuff of basketball lore.
This is where “Jumpin” Jackie Jackson rose to the challenge and snatched a quarter off the top of a backboard. This is where a lean and afro-ed Julius Erving came (from Philadelphia) and operated so beautifully he earned the nickname “Dr. J”. And the Internet still racks up hits from those who want to see clips from the night Kevin Durant played in a Rucker league game and dropped a silky 66 points under the floodlights as fans went berserk.
Rucker is a holy place for those who follow urban basketball. But as with any fundamentalist hotspot it is also a place to be approached with a certain degree of caution: Rucker can be a raucous and even dangerous place when competition gets heated, fans get hyped, and the mercury rises. So on a warm summer afternoon, as I emerge from the subway and step into the afternoon sun, I approach the park with its worn swings and teeter-totters and the high-and-rusty fence that surrounds the single court slowly. I am overcome by a mixture of excitement and fear; a nervous swirl of emotion fueled by my deep reverence for this place in hoop history. That, and the knowledge that Rucker fans do, on rare but bloody occasions, wield hand-guns and shoot each other. The first thing I notice is that the cracked asphalt at Rucker has been overlain by hardwood that glistens with colorful graffiti that could easily stood upright and displayed in a Soho gallery as laid flat on a Harlem playground. The next thing I see is the the long line-up to get into the court. Admission to Rucker requires an invitation to play or enough patience to endure concert-length queues that preface entry. The other option is to come with a basketball legend.
Tom Konchalski fits the bill, perfectly.
The 70-something-year-old basketball scout and sole proprietor of HSBI Report has been covering high school boys’ play for more than 50 years. And Konchalski has achieved massive fame within the most important basketball circles for his remarkable prescience for identifying the most talented high school ballers and then accurately projecting the level of university or college play at which they can contribute with maximum impact.
“If you’re out here and you run into somebody who doesn’t know Tom Konchalski then they don’t know New York basketball. Tom’s been a fixture in our community for 50 years,” says Jeff Riviera, a long-time high school coach in New York City. When asked about what it is exactly that Tom does that few others can or will do, Riviera explains that, “Tom’s not all about the all-star of the future hall of fame player… they’re going to get where they are going anyway. He’s looking at the little guy who may be under the radar. It’s those players whose skills are really good but may not be getting a lot of court time or a serious look from college coaches that Tom finds and helps place in the appropriate basketball program. “The next thing you know that kid is playing at Kansas or someplace. That’s what Tom can do.”
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