Tough decisions came at an early age for Tom Konchalski.
Especially the day Konchalski, then an eighth-grader at Ascension School in
Elmhurst, was forced to choose between attending either a Public Schools
Athletic League boys semifinal or a National Invitation Tournament game.
"My mother would only let me go to one," Konchalski said.
He picked the latter and watched as former St. Francis Prep star Tom Stith
and St. Bonaventure handed Jefferson alum Tony Jackson and St. John's one of
its worst defeats in program history, a 34-point loss on March 15, 1960.
The date also holds other significance in New York City basketball history.
- two of the city's, and country's, best high school players - went head to
head with a trip to the PSAL city championship game at stake.
Brown scored 39 points, and Hawkins, who covered Brown most of the game,
fouled out late in the third quarter with 18 points and 13 rebounds. Still,
Boys High held on for a 62-59 semifinal win as the old Garden at 50th Street
and Eighth Avenue was electric with 18,000 people.
"Through the years, people I run across ask me about that game," said
Hawkins, who has been a community relations representative for the Phoenix Suns
the past decade. "They tell me they were there, so it seems like that
[attendance] number should be fifty [thousand] or one hundred thousand."
Konchalski, however - long one of the city's premier high school basketball
observers who has seen countless high school games - missed what many believe
was the watershed moment of PSAL boys basketball.
"It was one of the worst choices I made in my life," Konchalski said of
going to the NIT game instead of the PSAL game.
Who would have thought that 18,000 people would sit and watch teenage boys
running up and down a basketball court?
Certainly not the powers-that-be that held the PSAL's first sports event
the day after Christmas in 1903. A crowd half that size witnessed the
multisport competition, as Flushing won the league's first championship: the
boys basketball title. (Flushing is still waiting for its second.)
The PSAL has awarded 95 more boys hoops titles since. Thus, the city's high
school basketball history is firmly rooted in the PSAL boys division.
A glance at some of the figures the PSAL has produced bears out this point.
The names of public school basketball greats - players and coaches alike - are
spoken with reverent lips, like a minister preaching to his congregation.
John O'Brien (Commerce, 1907); Nat Holman (Commerce, 1915); John Nucatola
(Newtown, 1926); Red Auerbach (Eastern District, 1936); Red Holzman (Lane,
1938); Bob Cousy (Jackson, 1946); Floyd Layne (Franklin, 1948); Connie Hawkins
(Boys, 1960); Nate "Tiny" Archibald (Clinton, 1966); Albert King (Fort
Hamilton, 1977); Dwayne "Pearl" Washington (Boys & Girls, 1983) and Stephon
Marbury (Lincoln, 1995).
Marbury's cousin, Sebastian Telfair, a sophomore point guard who led
Lincoln to a PSAL title March 16, seems destined for the list. The
underclassman shares a first-hand perspective on the symbiotic relationship
between the city and its basketball.
"In New York City, there's a basketball court on every block," Telfair
said. "You have no choice growing up but to play. There are so many great
players in the city, some of the guys you go against could have been in the NBA
... We have all the talent here."
The city does have many quality players, but unfortunately, when it comes
to New York City high school basketball, the PSAL also has had its share of
problems. None, though, as infamous as the incident that took place March 17,
and Boys High was played in the afternoon. According to various accounts of the
game, and some of the spectators, many of the city's police officers were
outside at the St. Patrick's Day parade. Bottles were thrown onto the Garden
floor throughout the game, and there were numerous fights in the stands.
Boys won the game, as 500 people stormed the court, forcing coach Howie
Jones and the Kangaroos to accept the title in the locker room. Later, another
crowd gathered outside the Garden, where there were more fights, and windows
broken along Eighth Avenue; it took police more than an hour to disperse the
"I saw things getting out of control, so I headed for the exits," said
Floyd Bank, who was at the game; Bank retired in 2001 as the PSAL's winningest
coach after 35 seasons and a 550-241 record at Long Island City and Edison. "It
was horrible, horrible."
The PSAL boys championship was banned from the Garden for more than 25
years. The league's playoff games were left to bounce around neutral courts and
local college gyms, until it returned to the Garden in 1989 thanks, in part,
to the efforts of former PSAL boys basketball commissioner Ed Michael and Paul
Munick, the Garden's vice president of athletics and family entertainment.
There was nothing entertaining about a 10-minute melee after the 1994 boys
PSAL Class B title game involving nearly 300 students and cheerleaders, when
Robeson beat George Washington, that nearly led to another banishment.
"I thought the roof was coming down," Michael said. "I thought the whole
program would be taken right out of the Garden. But we were willing to use
stricter security measures, and we've had no problems since."
Violence isn't the only trouble PSAL basketball has endured.
Over the years, PSAL coaches watched as the number of schools has increased
greatly in a short amount of time. There were 96 PSAL boys basketball teams in
1995, according to Michael; that number has increased to more than 160 this
season. Finding facilities for the new schools was difficult at first, Michael
said. So was the watering-down effect the new teams had upon the league.
"The basic fundamentals of the game have dropped," said Chuck Granby, who
just completed his 33rd year as coach at Campus Magnet (formerly Andrew Jackson
High School). "The game now is more one-on-one, which is seeping down from the
Also, CHSAA programs - with better graduation rates, safer environments and
quality teams and coaches - are an attractive option for public school
student-athletes looking for a free ticket to college in the form of a
Bank spoke of an acquaintance who had coached in both the CHSAA and Big
East, who once acknowledged, "It was a lot easier recruiting in the Big East
than in parochial schools."
PSAL basketball, just like every other city educational program or sport,
has been hurt by numerous fiscal cuts through the years. The worst was the
budget cut of 1975, as junior varsity programs were slashed and not renewed
until 1984, and again cut in the second half of the '94-'95 school year. Junior
varsity returned in the fall of '95 with the help of corporate donations.
"With the budget we had, there wasn't much [money] to cut," former Lincoln
coach Bobby Hartstein said. "But coaches of the public league know you really
have to love it ... There were a lot things [that] you don't have the luxury of
having in high schools."
One of the biggest luxuries is transportation. It is improper for a coach
to give student-athletes transportation to and from games. "They take the
subways," Hartstein said, "and you just hoped they'd get to the game on time."
And in one piece, after traveling upward of 90 minutes one way on certain
trips, in foreign boroughs wearing enemy colors.
"I'd pile five kids into my car," Bank said. "It was totally illegal, and I
could have lost my teaching and coaching positions, but I just did it. You
made the best of a bad situation."
New York City had been around for more than 250 years before James Naismith
hung a pair of peach baskets in a Springfield, Mass., YMCA in December 1891 and
invented what became the game of basketball.
Just 140 miles south and 12 years later, city educators formed the Public
Schools Athletic League, which soon became a model for high school leagues
across the country.
The league's forefathers were ahead of their time, awarding the first PSAL
championship in boys basketball in 1903. Flushing had the distinction of
winning that first title, though it has been waiting since for a second crown.
Earliest records date the origins of the Catholic High School Athletic
Association to the early 1900s, when the schools' baseball teams competed.
Basketball was a natural addition, and St. Ann's clinched the first boys
Catholic Schools basketball championship with a 46-21 win over Trinity in 1918.
The tournament was suspended from 1924-27 after St. John's won six years in a
row, and in 1928, St. John's beat Xavier, 30-18, in the first Catholic Schools
Athletic League championship game.
Whether it is the PSAL or CHSAA, boys or girls, basketball is the city's high
school sporting crown; one part steeped in history, another in the necessity of
an urban landscape outlined in asphalt, where basketball courts outnumber
football, baseball and soccer fields and hockey rinks combined.
But who knew almost 100 years ago, how quickly a city, and its people, would
become transfixed with a simple game involving a round ball and two baskets? Or
how rich a history would develop around the city and its game.
Here is a look at the evolution of high school basketball in the city.
- John Boell and Janet Paskin