End of an era; Canada’s Coach K prepares to say goodbye to the game
HALIFAX -- The man known in Canadian basketball circles as ‘Coach K’ is prepared to hang up the clipboard for the last time.
After 46-years of guiding the St. Francis Xavier University X-Men basketball team, Steve Konchalski’s time behind the bench is coming to an end.
His final season has not gone according to plan, with the pandemic just one of several personal tragedies that Coach K has faced in the past year, but he handles it with grace and perspective.
Konchalski fell in love with basketball as a child, growing up in Elmhurt, New York.
He came to Nova Scotia as a skinny 17-year-old, and burst onto the scene as a star player for the Acadia Axemen, helping lead the team to a National Championship in 1963.
“Acadia was a great school, and it was the perfect storm for me,” describes Konchalski.
He later planted roots in Nova Scotia, marrying his wife Charlene and fathering three children.
“I went to Dalhousie Law school and got a law degree,” says Konchalski.
But it was basketball practice, not law, that was Konchalski’s passion. He spent four years as an assistant at Loyola College in Montreal, and with the National Team under the late Jack Donohue.
In August of 1975, Konchalski learned St. FX was looking for a head coach, so he borrowed a friends car and hit the road.
“As I drove closer to Antigonish, and looked at the countryside and the beauty of the area, I pretty much said to myself, if they offer me the job, I’m going to take it,” recalls Konchalski.
At 75-years-old, Konchalski is now prepared to enter retirement with an incredible resume and irreplaceable memories.
Konchalski has coached his X-Men teams to a Canadian college basketball record 918 wins, along with nine AUS championships, and three National championships in 1993, 2000 and 2001.
“To me, 46 years is just one big memory,” recalls Konchalski. “The 1993 National Championship was magical, and those back-to-back championships were magical years.”
His office is a shrine, a jaw dropping showcase of accolades and achievements in the career of a man who has been inducted into four different Hall of Fames.
Off the court, there have been touching personal highlights, like when Richard Bella, star of the 1993 National Championship team, asked his former coach to be the best man at his wedding.
“That was a tremendous honour,” recalls Konchalski.
But the last year has been tough, with Konchalski saying that a personal loss proved more painful than any on-court defeat ever could.
Steve’s brother Tom, a legendary New York-based high school basketball recruiter who scouted everyone from Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, to LeBron James and Stephen Curry, died on February 8 after a battle with cancer.
“Not being able to go down, and see Tom, and not being able to go to the funeral because of COVID, that’s the hardest part.”
Konchalski will retire this spring, with his former player Tyrell Vernon taking over the head coaching duties.
This March should have seen Coach K and the X-Men going for his fourth career National Championship,
as they were supposed to be the host team at the USports Final Eight tournament at Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre.
But Atlantic University Sport postponed the entire season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning Konchalski’s final season behind the bench will feature no games, just practices, on a floor literally bearing his name – the main gymnasium at the St. FX Oland Centre was renamed ‘Coach K Court’ in November 2017.
“I feel terrible for him,” says Leo MacPherson, a former player under Konchalski who now works as St. FX Atheltic Director.
MacPherson hopes his former coach could one-day return to the court bearing his name for a one game, retirement send-off.
“That would be ideal, and it would help salvage what has been a difficult pandemic year,” says MacPherson.
But Konchalski says the pandemic has provided him with layers of life perspective.
“It’s time. Everything has its time, and this is the time for me,” says Konchalski. “Life is much more significant than a couple of basketball games.”
Wise words from a basketball legend, now set to retire from the school where he made so much history.