Steve Konchalski huddles with one of his many X-Men teams. Photo courtesy St. Francis Xavier University

‘Coach K’ puts faith to work on court for St. Francis Xavier University

  • March 5, 2021

It has not been the final season long time St. Francis Xavier University head basketball coach Steve Konchalski imagined.

After a remarkable 46 years leading the men’s team at the school in Antigonish, N.S., the legendary coach will retire from the position he’s held since 1975 when players wore short shorts and two stripe socks pulled up to their mid calves. The school was scheduled to host the Canadian university championships — a fitting close to a storied career — but like so many things, those plans went awry some time ago due to COVID.

With sports competitions cancelled for the season, Konchalski turned his focus to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the players who continue to practice as a squad. The loss of his brother Tom to prostate cancer at age 74 in early February has thrown another wrench into the year. A legend of the game in his own right, Tom was a well-known American college basketball scout and publisher of High School Basketball Illustrated, a must-read for top college coaches in search of up-and-coming young talent.

Mourning his brother has not been easy. Like so many families, he was not able to visit in his last days or attend the funeral in person but instead virtually streamed the service held Feb. 23 in New York City.

Konchalski says though Tom lived in New York City, where they grew up, they remained bonded all these years through their Catholic faith and passion to help youth through the game of basketball.

“My brother lived a life of  faith and I know his calling in life was basketball,” said Konchalski of Tom, who never married but instead devoted his life to helping to create opportunities for young players. “He used the phrase, ‘Basketball is my mistress, but my Catholic faith is my lawful wife.’ Everybody lives their faith a different way, but I think both of us put as a priority in our lives, using basketball as a way to help young people. I think that’s certainly something that we have in common and bonded us together in addition to our family ties. If you keep that in perspective, I think that kind of helps in terms of getting through COVID and getting through any basketball disappointment.”

It’s fair to say there have been many more triumphs than disappointments through Konchalski’s career. In his 46 years at StFX, he’s accrued nine Atlantic University Sport (AUS) titles, three national championships — in 1993, 2000 and 2001 — and six times earned AUS coach-of-the-year honours. He has also spent decades working with the Canadian national team program and served as head coach from 1995-1998. He was inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

In Konchalski’s early days working at StFx in 1975, his brother directed him to several student athletes from the New York and eastern United States area, including the first player he ever recruited — Gil Green. After both his parents died, Green spent lots of time with Tom, whom he affectionately called St. Thomas because of how he went above and beyond to help him as a young man looking for direction.

Upon learning of the prospect, Konchalski went to New York City to have a look at Green and after a game of one-on-one outside his old high school they had sealed the deal. Green became the foundation upon which Konchalski built the StFX basketball program. During his tenure as a student there he was named StFX’s MVP on three occasions and upon graduation, was the all-time leading scorer with 2,229 points.

“When he recruited me, he said Gil, there’s only two things that I could really promise you,” recalled Green, who became one of the first in his family to earn a college degree. “He said, I promise you that in four years you’re going to have an education and get your college degree. The other thing he said is hopefully in four years’ time, we can win a championship. Well, we almost did both. What I remember most about Steve as a coach was he always made sure he put us in a position to win. We always had a (strong) one-on-one personal connection.”

Konchalski attended Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, N.Y., which had one of the top-rated basketball teams in the country at the time when he started there in the late 1950s. It was there that he caught the bug as a freshman and when younger brother Tom started at the school the pair went around watching college games at Madison Square Garden, both developing a deep love for the game.  

Konchalski went on to Acadia University, in Wolfville, N.S. At first his parents were apprehensive on account of it being in Canada and also a Baptist institution. Up until that point, he and his brother, who served as altar boys, had only been educated at Catholic schools but coach Stu Aberdeen made a deal with Konchalski’s mother that put the family at ease.

“He said, my athletic director whose name is Major Kelly, and his wife are Catholics, and he assured my parents that they would pick me up every Sunday morning and take me to 11 o’clock Mass,” chuckled Konchalski who remembers attending St. Francis of Assisi, a church on the other side of town. “Sure enough they were true to their word. They picked me up — excuse the pun — religiously, for the whole time I was there.”

He led Acadia University to its first ever national title in 1965, setting single game highs of 41 points and 17 field goals, earning tournament MVP honours. His career 1,479 points were more than any player had scored in the history of the program when he graduated in 1966. Despite being at a Baptist school, he made no apologies for making the sign of the cross before every free throw.

He went on to earn a law degree from Dalhousie University, but basketball was never far from his thoughts as a career. Konchalski landed his first coaching job at Loyola College in Montreal, a Jesuit school now part of Concordia University, before moving on to St. Francis Xavier four years later.

In recognition of his contributions to the school, the gym where he mentored generations of young men was renamed Coach K Court in 2017.

Though he’s moving on from StFx, Konchalski has no plans to leave the game of basketball. He will continue to work with the national team program as a consultant and looks forward to having more time to spend with wife Charlene, their three adult children, Chris, Julianne and Maria, and two grandchildren.

An exhibition game in Antigonish is scheduled March 6 at 7:30 p.m. versus Konchalski’s alma mater Acadia, befittingly marking the end of his StFx career.

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