St. FX and Acadia honour Steve “Coach K” Konchalski in exhibition action

Toronto, ON- When the final buzzer rang across a mostly empty basketball arena, it only mattered so much. St. FX’s 99-76 win over the Acadia Axemen on ‘Coach K Court’ provided players and fans with a moment of relief from the sports hiatus, but in the bigger picture, it honoured the last 46 years of X-Men basketball under the legendary Steve Konchalski. 

Konchalski instructs the St.FX basketball team in 1993 (St.FX)

With his family watching from Terrace, BC, Calgary, AB and Toronto, ON, “Coach K” led the X-Men out for his final time, facing his alma mater, Acadia University, where he played as a student-athlete. The game also launched the Coach K Challenge Trophy, a title that will be annually awarded at a single Acadia-St.FX men’s basketball game in future seasons. 

For the Acadia Axemen, the game was far from easy to get to. To play on Saturday, they had to drive in a bus from Wolfville, NS, to Digby to get COVID-19 assessments, a nearly three-hour trip. Between the travel for the game and the tests, the relationship between the two schools was highlighted, something that the two school’s athletic directors and AUS Executive Director spoke about on the broadcast.

The game

While honours and tributes happened from pre-game to well after the final buzzer, the gameplay was competitive. The X-Men, who were supposed to host the 2021 U SPORTS national championships, played their first game since March 2020, and for parts of the night, the rust showed. Acadia had the chance to face Dalhousie in a scrimmage before the exhibition season was shut down. 

In the end, however, Coach K and the St. FX X-Men got their sunset sendoff with a victory. Dondre Reddick and Jeremiah Usiosefe led the X-Men with 16 points each, en route to their first and likely only win of the season. Ryan Munro led the line for the Axemen, scoring 15 points, but the second-year guard’s efforts were not enough to make up the deficit. 

Highly sought-after prospect Bennet Brumbach played his first game in X-Men colours, and only his under Coach K – he did not disappoint. His night began by scoring 3/3 three-point shots, only missing his fourth attempt. St. FX is hosting nationals in 2022, and Brumbach could play a critical role in a potential run. 

Tributes from start to end

Tributes began at the beginning of the evening, but the celebrations reached their end later. Minutes before the final shot, a message from TSN’s Leo Rautins and Rod Black came on screen, with two of Canada’s most prevalent basketball voices speaking fondly of the legendary coach.  Rautins played for Konchalski when he was a national team assistant coach.

Acadia University athletic director Kevin Dickie also spoke fondly of Konchalski, who played for the Axemen as a student-athlete. “We brought him to Canada, shared him with the country, and we are pretty proud of it,” he said of the New York  born Konchalski.

“In the sporting world, we throw the word legend around often and sometimes without a whole lot of thought, but the legend does not seem to be enough,” said St.FX Athletic Director Leo Macpherson.

A commissioned caricature, plaques, boards and many hugs later,  Coach K spoke as well. “We finally got a game, and I finally have something to retire from, “ he said. “I think over time, the wins and losses will become hazy, but I will never forget any player that I ever coached.”

Loved ones in mind

Fifth-year X-Men Azaro Roker also played his last game in Antigonish, and for now, his last game in Canada. St. FX. Born in the Bahamas, Roker came to Canada for basketball but is going back home with this game in the rearview. Roker’s mother passed away, and through a GoFundMe page, he raised enough funds, meaning he can travel home to join his family. 

Konchalski’s brother, Tom, a renowned basketball scout, died on Feb. 8 due to prostate cancer, and because of COVID-19 restrictions, Coach K was unable to visit his brother.  “Having to watch his funeral live-streamed was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” Konchalski said to The Canadian Press.

Moving forward

As reported by 49 Sports AUS correspondent Luke Dyment, this game will likely be it for the AUS exhibition basketball season in Nova Scotia. The first plan to get back to athletics was halted when the government reintroduced restrictions. There is a chance for basketball in New Brunswick if the province enters the Yellow Zone in the next few days. 

As for the X-Men, one of Konchalksi’s former student-athletes, Tyrell Vernon, is set to take over as Head Coach. 

With Coach K’s retirement, U SPORTS basketball will return in the fall without the all-time wins leaders in men’s basketball (Konchalski) and women’s basketball (Toronto’s Michele Belanger)

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