There are these two big, senior centers with the same initials. Both are Missourians, and both spent last summer as Olympic-team caddies for Patrick Ewing, in whose shadow they will again stand on NBA draft day. They also play for the two best teams in the same conference. Is it any wonder that 7'1", 240-pound Jon Koncak of SMU was introduced last spring to a group of Olympic hopefuls by Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote thusly: "Fellas, I'd like you to meet Joe Kleine of Arkansas"?
To further complicate matters, Koncak and Kleine—or is it Kleine and Koncak—are Nos. 2 and 2A among pivotmen in college basketball. They're likely to be high first-round picks who may not "make" an NBA franchise but who will get one back on its feet. One of the more interesting subplots at June's NBA draft will be the order in which the two are selected. Will the 6'11", 255-pound Kleine, with his soft jumper and his fiery, fist-raising spirit, be the more valuable J.K.? Or will Koncak's steady power game tilt the balance in his favor?
Last Saturday in Dallas, Koncak (pronounced KON-kak) may have gotten at least a temporary edge when SMU beat Southwest Conference rival Arkansas 63-60 in overtime, for King Konc's first victory in five tries against Kleine. "Arkansas is like that mosquito in my bedroom," Koncak had said before the game, "the one I could never swat dead."
It wasn't that the big men decided the outcome. That was more in the hands of 5'9", bulldog-tough SMU guard Butch Moore, who had 20 points and two key steals, and Arkansas forward Charles Balentine (29 points and 10 rebounds). But it was significant that Koncak didn't let it be decided by Kleine. True, Koncak had only five rebounds, but playing Kleine head-to-head in the underbelly of SMU's zone for almost the full 45 minutes, Koncak allowed Kleine only seven. Koncak had 17 points; Kleine had 10. Koncak blocked three shots, including one by Kleine; Kleine blocked none. In their four previous meetings Koncak had never outrebounded Kleine and had out-scored him only once. Consider the mosquito swatted.
January 14, 1985
Koncak has been swatting at Kleine for eight years. They played their high school ball about 100 miles apart, Klein at small-town (pop.: 2,492) Slater High and Koncak at Center High in Kansas City. "Joe was a man in high school," says Koncak. Kleine grew into his body earlier than Koncak, and he probably grew up more basketball-tough, too, having often been the only white player in pickup games on the Slater playground.
"A playground with black players in Slater?" says Koncak. "I think he's throwing some jive." (No, it's true.) Koncak, though raised in the big city, rarely played with or against black players until he got to SMU. "Where I came from, there weren't playgrounds," he says. "There were driveways."
"Joe looked like a sure thing out of high school," says Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton, who recruited both Kleine and Koncak, "whereas Jon was considered a project." The project chose SMU, which was a project itself, coming off a 7-20 season under then first-year coach Dave Bliss. With its freshman center, the Mustangs went 6-21 in 1981-82 but turned things around the next two seasons, winning 44 of 63 games. This season the Ponies are 11-1, losing only a controversial game to Chaminade on Dec. 25. "Jon has done one thing Joe never had the chance to do," says Bliss. "He made a program."
Kleine had gone to Notre Dame out of high school but transferred to Arkansas after one unhappy season under the Golden Dome. From the moment he arrived in Fayetteville, it was a marriage made in Hog heaven. Few athletes have been as popular at Arkansas as Smokin' Joe from Slater, Mo.—the winning entry chosen by Kleine in a statewide nickname contest last season. "You know, I bet I judge 10 Arkansas high school prom-queen courts a year," he says.
Kleine is still better than Koncak offensively. He's accurate up to 17 feet with his jumper, and he can throw slick passes from the high post. Defensively, he has had the advantage of playing man-to-man in Sutton's system, but he's not particularly mobile, and as a rejector, he's a reject. Koncak has wonderful hands and a knack for knowing when to help out against pressure, and he throws perhaps the best outlet pass in the college game. He'll get twice as many dunks as Kleine in the NBA. The fact that he has played mostly zone defense is almost irrelevant—he demonstrated on Saturday he can play man-to-man, and he protects the basket as well as anyone west of the nation's capital. Which J.K. is better? Call it a draw. Poll 15 basketball people and you'll get five votes for Kleine, five for Koncak and five undecided.
They surely wouldn't vote for each other. Koncak doesn't care much for Kleine's fist-raising—"Why does he have to do that stuff?" he asks—while Kleine, reluctantly, will admit that he's hardly enamored of Koncak's sharp tongue. "Early in his career he said some really ignorant things," says Kleine. Koncak can get on a pretty good roll about Slater. "I can picture ol' Joe and his brothers [he has three] sitting on the back of a pickup truck and sipping some beer," Koncak says. "You just wouldn't want to mess with those boys down there."
For the most part, though, it's just harmless college woofing. They've got a keen, interesting rivalry going that should continue in the years ahead. While Ewing is somewhere up above, trading elbows with the immortals. Koncak and Kleine will always have each other to kick around.