NCAA tourney memories: CHD sits down with former SMU All-American Jon Koncak

SMU coach Larry Brown has completely turned things around, as the Mustangs have a great shot at making their first NCAA tournament in over two decades when they were a member of the Southwest Conference.  The last time SMU made consecutive tourneys was in the mid-1980s, when they were led by All-American big man Jon Koncak.  This March marks the 30th anniversary of Koncak’s amazing performance in the 1984 NCAA tourney, when he scored 32 points in consecutive games and almost ruined Georgetown’s run to the national title.  He later spent over a decade in the NBA and has not slowed down at all since retiring.  CHD’s Jon Teitel sat down with Koncak to discuss playing against Patrick Ewing in the tourney and playing with him in the 1984 Olympics. 


Your competitive basketball career began at age 15 when you were discovered by an AAU coach while shooting in the St. Thomas Moore Catholic Church.  Were you just a late-bloomer, and how hard was it to adjust to competitive basketball? The church had just built a new gym facility and when the coach saw me shooting around he asked me to play for his team. We came in fifth in an AAU tourney in Kansas City.  I joined another team and won the state tourney, then won a bronze medal at the national tourney later that year. It was a window of opportunity and I just tried to take advantage of it.

You met your wife Darlene in high school, and got married after your junior year at SMU, what impact did getting married have on your life both on and off the court?Early on she was a great stabilizing factor and helped me focus on basketball and homework. We got married right before the Olympic trials. We had our first child at the start of my second year in the NBA, so I had a lot of responsibilities off the court that some of my single teammates did not have.

SMU went 1-15 in SWC play during your freshman season, but by your senior season was ranked second in the country.  How was the team able to make such a huge turnaround? My recruiting class included a great power forward named Larry Davis, and the following year we signed a couple of other guys who became the core of our team. Freshman year was rough but we ended up really gelling together.

In the 1984 NCAA tourney you scored 32 poitns in a win over Miami (OH).  Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were “in the zone”? It was the first time that SMU had been in the tourney in about 25 years, so we were just excited to be there. Miami had Ron Harper but I was able to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do inside because they did not have a lot of good big men.

You scored 32 points in a one-point loss to eventual champion Georgetown.  How were you able to play so well against tourney MOP Patrick Ewing, and how close did you come to winning the game? I really wanted to play against Ewing, who was the best big man of my generation. I outscored him even though we lost and that performance helped propel me to the Olympic trials.

You won a gold medal with Ewing as a member of Team USA at the 1984 Olympics, was it hard to go from being opponents to being teammates in the span of a few months, and what did it mean to you to win a gold medal? It was not that hard to play with Ewing: he did not practice a lot that spring because of tendinitis in his knees but he earned a spot with his prior play and respected me as his teammate. I was just thrilled to see guys like Michael Jordan and Chris Mullin who I had watched on TV. I venture to say that for most of those 12 guys the Olympics was the most exciting thing that we have ever done.

In 1985 you were named All-American: what did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor? It is funny how they did the voting because it was not based on position. I ended up being the 6th-highest vote-getter so I only made the 2nd-team, but it was still a huge honor.

In the 1985 NCAA tourney you had 17 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Old Dominion.  What did you learn from the 1984 tourney that helped you in 1985? Our regular season was weird: we started 16-1 and beat some great teams like UNC, Kentucky and Oklahoma but kind of fizzled in conference play.

You had 19 points and 10 rebounds in a loss to Loyola (IL).  What was the reaction like in your locker room afterwards? Loyola had one of the best scorers in the country in Alfredrick Hughes, but I still think that we should have beaten them. If we did then we would have gotten a rematch with Georgetown. We made it to the second round each year, but it was much more disappointing in 1985 because we were not just happy to be there.

You still hold school records for most career rebounds and blocks. Did you realize at the time how prolific a player you were, and do you think that anyone will ever break your records? Things have changed a lot: we did not have a three-point line back then so some of the guys who came after me have scored a lot of points. It is also not an apples-to-apples comparison because the players who came before me only played three years of varsity ball (freshmen were ineligible). I think there will be someone to come along and break the blocks record, but I think the rebounds record has a better chance of standing. I do not worry about it…but I glance at the record book every other year as most guys do!!

In the summer of 1985 you were drafted fifth overall by Atlanta (two spots ahead of your Olympic teammate Mullin).  Did you see that as a validation of your college career, or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA? It was both of those. I was not in the top tier of high school guys who got recruited to the premier college teams but four years later I was a top-five draft pick, which was very satisfying. There were guys below me who had much more prolific careers than I did (Mullin, Detlef Schrempf, Karl Malone). I felt I deserved to be picked that high but I did not play much because the Hawks had a lot of good big guys.

A few years after leaving SMU you admitted receiving cash gifts from booster George Owen while you were in college.  How did that affect your legacy at SMU, and how has the booster program changed since then? The death penalty for the football program was featured in an ESPN documentary, which really took me back. I am not proud of my actions but it was something available to a lot of players at several universities. I came from a very middle-class family so we did not have a lot of spending money back then. Nobody offered me money to go to SMU, but after I got there and saw that certain guys had received benefits I asked around and got some benefits of my own. They retired my jersey and put me in the school Hall of Fame so I do not think it hurt my legacy too much.

In 1989 you signed a 6-year/$13 million deal from the Hawks, which was criticized at the time because it meant that you were making more money than Michael Jordan.  How did that contract change your life, and why did you continue to mow your own grass? I was coming off the bench for most of the previous season but Mike Fratello started me and Moses Malone as Twin Towers towards the end of the season. I had a great playoff series (12.8 PPG/9.6 RPG) and almost overnight I became one of the best free-agent big men out there. Detroit had just lost Rick Mahorn in the expansion draft so they flew me up north to wine and dine me. Atlanta decided to make me a big offer that basically quadrupled my salary. It was nice when I was playing well…but the first shot I missed in the preseason caused me to receive a lot of boos. The Hawks’ management said that they raised ticket prices in order to sign me and our team fell off a bit, so it was a very difficult time. I enjoyed and endured the challenge: I never asked to get bought out or traded. The reason I mowed my own grass is because it was something I like to do, and I also teach my kids to have a good work ethic.

You averaged 4.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game during your 11-year NBA career.  How satisfied are you with your career, and do you have any regrets? I think if we had started a family later then I could have focused more time on my game, but I love my family. I had 9 points and five rebounds per game as a rookie while playing only 18-20 minutes per game, but was not able to get many minutes in future years due to guys ahead of me like Tree Rollins and Moses Malone, which hindered my development. We were in the playoffs during six of my 10 seasons in Atlanta. Other big men of my era like Ewing, Wayman Tisdale and Benoit Benjamin got to play a lot of minutes and put up some great stats, but their teams often missed the playoffs. When you are young you feel like you are doing all that you can so I do not have a lot of regrets.

You still run three miles almost every day and weigh less than you did when you played: were you always a good athlete, and how did you get into running? I was an average athlete compared to most of the guys I played with in the pros, but compared to a regular guy on the street I would say that I am very athletic. I played at about 265-275 but now I am down to about 260. I like working out and staying in shape so I try to run at least every other day. If you can keep the weight off you can avoid diabetes and heart disease.

Your daughters were all-state HS basketball players in Wyoming: how proud are you of all their accomplishments, and do they credit at least some of their success to genetics? My oldest daughter helped improve her team a lot from the start of her career to graduation, and my youngest daughter won back-to-back state titles. It was very satisfying to help coach both of them. The older one was more gifted but the younger one had my tenacity and would do whatever it took to get the ball and be a leader. Winning the gold medal was very special to me but watching them play was as satisfying for me as almost anything else I did during my career.

When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? SMU is a mid-major program and is not primarily known as a basketball school, but I am proud to have my jersey retired and be one of two basketball players inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame. As a pro I was proudest of being a good teammate: the kind of guy you needed on your team to contend for a title. I made plays to help teams win playoff games, which is as big a compliment as any.