What he did: An Eagle Scout, Jon Koncak’s No. 53 jersey flies high above the basketball arena at SMU, a tribute to the 7-footer who came to the school in the early 1980’s and turned the program around, beating powers like North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville and Duke.
“It was unforgettable,’’ he said. “I was recruited by 80 or 90 schools and I go to this place that had 4,000 kids and we won just six games my freshman year. We beat all the powerhouses and my junior year (1984), we were one point away from beating Georgetown and Patrick Ewing and they would go on to win the national championship.’’
For Koncak, it was his best of times on the court, though over his 11 NBA seasons, he would play in 784 games and average 4.5 points and 4.9 rebounds. But while he was popular with his teammates and management and had the reputation of being nothing but class off the court, he will always be tied with the six-year, $13 million contract he received in 1989, an unheard of deal for a part-time starter, calling for more money at the time than the contracts of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan.
Koncak grew up in Kansas City and was not much taller than many of his friends entering high school friends. But he grew three inches a year so that by the time he graduated from Center High School, he had hit seven feet. Most colleges wanted him but SMU, which at the time was rebuilding under Dave Bliss, signed him. After two seasons the Mustangs made the NCAA tournament, losing to Georgetown and Ewing 37-36 in the second round. As a senior, Koncak led his team back to the second round, this time falling to Loyola-Chicago before getting ready for the NBA draft. He played with Ewing and Jordan on the 1984 Olympic team that was coached by Bobby Knight and won gold in Los Angeles.
The Hawks had the fifth pick in the ’85 draft and Ewing was a lock to go No. 1 to the Knicks. Wayman Tisdale went to the Pacers, Benoit Benjamin to the Clippers and Xavier McDaniel to the SuperSonics before Atlanta picked Koncak. He had a strong rookie season, playing in all 82 games in what was statistically his best year, averaging 8.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in only 15 starts.
After his fourth season, Koncak became a restricted free agent and Detroit tendered him an offer sheet for $2.5 million for one season. That would have tripled his $675,000 salary with the Hawks, who responded with the massive $13 million contract. That deal set into motion a series of events that many thought threw the NBA’s salary structure out of line. Said superagent Marc Fleisher at the time: “Every agent in the business was surprised by the numbers.”
Fans immediately turned on Koncak. It didn’t help that the team struggled for a few seasons. The Hawks did win the division in the ’93-94 season — he started 78 games — before being eliminated by Indiana in the conference semifinals. Koncak’s last Atlanta season came in ’94-95, after which he went to Orlando for one year before retiring.
Where he lives: Koncak, 51, is divorced and splits his time between Atlanta and Jackson, Wyo. He has two daughters, Jessica and Alexandra.
What he does now: Still a gym rat, he spends a lot of time working out and watches his investments while sitting on the boards of two small biotech companies. “I stay low key,’’ he said.
On the current Hawks: “I went to the Dominique (Wilkins) celebration and the new management is making a big effort to include a lot of the alumni now. That hasn’t always been the case. I am like everyone else, very excited about the Hawks. There are no more dominant players on the inside and teams that are good like the Hawks and Golden State are the ones that can shoot the three-pointer. And the Hawks play defense.’’
On the best Hawks team he played with: “There were two of them and we both won 57 games. The first one (1987-88), we had Tree (Rollins) and Doc (Rivers) and Dominique but success was new to everyone. Boston was still the dominant team and Detroit and us were trying to challenge them. The team my ninth year (1993-94) didn’t have the same explosiveness because we had traded Wilkins for Danny Manning. But that was the year we set all the records that they are breaking this year.’’
On why he went to SMU: “Well, SMU coach Dave Bliss was the only one that could spell my name. All the other coaches spelled it ‘John.’ No, really the Missouri coach called and just expected me to sign with them because I was from Kansas City. SMU, meanwhile, sent an assistant coach to, I think, every game my senior year. It was neat being part of a program that we brought into the forefront.’’
On being drafted: “Well, I knew I wasn’t going No. 1 with Ewing, And I meet with all the teams that were picking from Nos. 2-6. I do remember going to the draft because I missed my flight because of bad traffic in Dallas and I am never late for anything. Then when I got to New York and I walked into the room with all the players there and (commissioner) David Stern was just talking about how important it was to be on time. I was excited to go to Atlanta.’’
On then-team president Stan Kasten, responsible for the big contract: “I will say that the year after I signed the contract, Stan was being asked why season tickets were being raised and he said because of my contract. But I always thought he supported me. The contract made him as famous as it made me.’’
On what he initially wanted: “The Hawks had actually offered me a four-year deal for $4 million but I told my agent I thought I could get $5 million over four years so I didn’t sign it. I just decided to play it out.’’
On how the offer became so much more: “During my fourth year, Kevin Willis had broken his foot and was out and (coach) Mike Fratello didn’t want to play Moses (Malone) and I at the same time. So he started Cliff Levingston. But one day, Cliff was late to practice and it ticked off Fratello. He came up to me and asked if I could play the No. 4 spot. I did and in the first game, I scored only eight points but had 20 rebounds. He kept me in the lineup and we went 13-3 and in a couple of those games, I scored 20 points. I finally felt things were going my way and the Pistons offered me the offer sheet and then came the huge offer from the Hawks. I remember the first game the next season when I took my first shot in Atlanta, the fans booed. I had been a fan favorite before the contract. I became the scapegoat for what was happening to the Hawks. But like I have always said, I understand where the fans were coming from.’’