WIZARD of ODDS (Part 4)

My first meeting with Tom Konchalski came in the mid-1990s. 

I had flown from my then-home in Toronto to New York City to interview the man I’d heard about for a decade — since 1985, in fact, when I was playing varsity basketball for his brother, Steve Konchalski, at St. Francis Xavier University in the one-traffic-light town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia.  Tom and I met at a deli on 3rd Avenue, where, with a formica table and a stainless-steel napkin dispenser between us, we talked at length about the kaleidoscope of a career he was enjoying.   Two hours later I was struck by the fact that I had never met anyone who generated such frequent and consistent praise and yet seemed deaf to the compliments heaped upon him and downright blind to the lure of the siren’s call of fame. 

Konchalski has made a cottage industry out of hiding in plain sight; ignoring accolades for decades in a manner so unlike many of the players he has scouted and who made millions only to succumb to wasteful ways and penurious outcomes.  I had heard also that Tom was an outlier because he would never accept a favor or perk from anyone (even free entry to a high school gym was a gratuity he is said to not accept).  I then inadvertently tested his integrity when the bill for our modest meal arrived.  Our waitress scrawled out the bill for our king’s feast of sandwiches and slaw and I offered to pick up the tab.  Konchalski would hear none of it and politely declined, insisting instead that we split the $30 tab straight down the middle. 

The years unfolded between that first meeting and my next serious conversation with Konchalski.  During that time, my writing career tracked respectably upward (although I was unable to find an outlet for the the story of the ‘greatest sports scout you’d never heard of’).  For his part, Konchalski’s life remained as quietly successful as ever, and yet, I noted happily, his name rarely appeared in the media (nor has it ever appeared in a dedicated Wikipedia entry.)  Here was an insular man who was content spending countless hours in gyms making notes on the players he saw before turning his expert analysis into yet another edition of the scouting publication the he produces single-handedly.

The man behind HSBI Report (the acronym stands for “High School Basketball Illustrated”, although the report carries no photos or images) sends his publication out to a few hundred college and university basketball coaches across the United States, all of whom gladly pay for the possibility of finding an outstanding male high school basketball player who can immediately help their Division I, II or III program.  Konchalski educates his readers so often and with such clever aplomb that his ridiculously modest, print-only publication is scrutinized by college basketball coaches in the way a religious attends to Scripture.  All the while, Konchalski moves through basketball circles with an almost mythic aura — one that leaves even the biggest stars humbled in his presence. 

His brother Steve likes to tell the story of his brother standing in a busy gym one day when Kobe Bryant walked in.  The fans clambered around the NBA star but Bryant made a bee-line it through his fans to greet Tom and shake his hand.  “They spent the next half-an-hour talking,” recalls Steve proudly.