The Ball Is Back In His Court Tom Gola Gives La Salle's Arena A Great New Name

Posted: November 20, 1998

Helen Gola stared blankly at the Olney neighbor who thought her son Tom was the best eighth-grade basketball player at Incarnation School.

``What's basketball?'' asked the mother of seven. This was in 1947.

By 1954, Helen Gola knew about basketball. She cried as she gazed out the tiny kitchen window of her rowhouse at 5110 N. Third St., surveying the damage from Hurricane Hazel. The storm had toppled the family's basket and backboard. ``That was the last link with Tommy's childhood,'' she told Sports Illustrated.

By then, ``Tommy'' was a 6-foot-6, 21-year-old senior at La Salle College, the school he had picked from the more than 50 offering scholarships. As a freshman in 1952, he had led the small Roman Catholic college to the NIT title. In March of 1954, his Explorers won the NCAA championship.

This square-jawed, oldest son of a Philadelphia policeman was already a folk legend. Crowds at Convention Hall - and even at Madison Square Garden, where he played 23 times - chanted ``Go, Gola, go!'' whenever Gola, No. 15 in that distinctive, short-sleeve La Salle uniform, touched the ball.

By the time he graduated in 1955, Gola would be the most honored player in the history of college basketball, a first-team all-American for four consecutive seasons, an NIT and NCAA tournament MVP. He scored more than 20 points a game and easily could have averaged 30. His NCAA career rebounding mark of 2,201 still stands.

Now, 44 years after the NCAA championship, 42 years after Gola helped the Philadelphia Warriors win an NBA title as a rookie, 30 years after he coached La Salle to a No. 2 national ranking, 23 years after his election to the Basketball Hall of Fame, La Salle is counting on Gola again.

Tom Gola Arena, the refurbished Hayman Center, will be officially dedicated tomorrow night with ceremonies at the La Salle-Howard game. Mayor Rendell, who will introduce Gola's ex-teammates at halftime, has proclaimed tomorrow ``Tom Gola Day'' in the city.

Gola, 65, who went on to become a state legislator and Philadelphia's controller, never played in the arena that will bear his name. But as the Explorers return this season to their on-campus facility, school officials hope his legendary name will help revive their once nationally prominent program.

``There wasn't anything he couldn't do on a basketball court,'' said Charlie Mohr, a teammate of Gola's on the 1949-50 La Salle High team that won the city championship. ``He could play point guard, center, and shut down the opponent's big man.''

So versatile was Gola, so unusually mobile for a basketball big man, that New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick, after watching the young Philadelphian as a freshman, immediately pronounced him ready to start in the NBA. UCLA coach John Wooden called him the ``greatest all-round basketball player'' he had ever seen.

Eddie Gottlieb, the savvy Philadelphia Warriors coach and owner who had been watching basketball since its invention, said Gola was ``the most natural basketball player I've ever seen.''

``When I was growing up,'' said Wilt Chamberlain, an Overbrook schoolboy when Gola starred at La Salle, ``you whispered the name Tom Gola, because he was like a saint.''

* Gola, teammates insist, had the flattest jump shot they ever saw. That's because he learned the game during World War II in a cramped basement gymnasium at Incarnation School, at Fifth and Lindley Streets, a block from his home.

In that dark old facility, the top of the backboard nearly scraped the ceiling.

``At one point, many years ago, the floor was lowered because the ceiling was so low, there were some places on the court you couldn't score from,'' said James Cunningham, a longtime parishioner who moved to Olney in 1923.

Gola was a fifth-grade altar boy when the Rev. Joseph Belz introduced him to the game.

``Father took all the boys over to the gym and said, `Fellows, I'm going to teach you how to play basketball,' '' Gola said yesterday. By the time he was in eighth grade, Incarnation's team, coached by Lefty Huber, had won a state and national championship.

Gola's father, Ike, a patrolman stationed in the Ninth District at 20th and Buttonwood Streets, was 5-foot-5, his mother about the same. But Helen Gola's mother had been more than 6 feet tall, and young Tom obviously took after her. He was a 6-footer by the time he entered La Salle High in the fall of 1947, 6-5 a year later.

``At first you didn't really notice him,'' said John Kane, another teammate of Gola's at La Salle High. ``But when we came back that next year, he had really shot up, and you could see this kid was going to be something special.''

His high school coach, Obie O'Brien, put him at center, but Gola was as comfortable at guard. He was smart, unselfish and a dogged rebounder. He also was quiet, unemotional and somewhat aloof. Sportswriters of the day liked to call him the ``Phlegmatic Pole.''

``I've never met an iceberg like him,'' O'Brien once said.

* Interest in basketball boomed in Philadelphia in the 1950s - a decade in which Chamberlain, Paul Arizin and Guy Rodgers also played in the city.

Gola's La Salle High games became events as he set a Catholic League scoring record every season, finishing with 2,222 points. As a senior, he won the Markward Award as the league's top player (the Public League winner that year was Ben Franklin's John Chaney).

Top college recruiters flocked to afternoon practices at La Salle's gym, where the La Salle College team also practiced. The college coach, Ken Loeffler, kept a close eye on the prodigy, but didn't introduce himself until after Gola had graduated.

The recruiting process wasn't easy for Loeffler to watch as the talented player visited some of the nation's most recognizable coaches and schools: Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Everett Case at North Carolina State (where, Gola said, an alumnus offered him $250 a month). Army promised to waive its 6-4 height restriction if he would go to West Point.

``When Tom was a [high school] junior, Temple coach Josh Cody offered five or six of his teammates, including me, scholarships,'' Mohr said. ``Everyone knew that what he was hoping to do was get Tom to go there.''

Eventually his decision came down to North Carolina State or La Salle (where, Gola said, the dean, ``Brother Stanislaus, was really the one who recruited me'').

Gola, a devout Catholic, decided to stay with the Christian Brothers at 20th and Olney. ``When I told Obie about the $250 a month, he said, `That's it. You'd better go to La Salle,' '' Gola recalled.

By the end of his freshman year, he was a first-team all-American, the MVP of the Explorers' NIT championship and the subject of daily stories in the city's newspapers.

Readers learned that Gola, the high-cheekboned accounting major nicknamed ``Ostrich'' by teammates, loved comic books, jazz saxophonist Stan Kenton and playing the harmonica. Soon, Philadelphians viewed this handsome young man who had grown up in the mundane warren of Olney rowhouses as some kind of superhero. He seemed too good to be true.

``There is,'' Father Belz said in the mid-'50s, ``a touch of unreality about him.''

* In that era of flat-footed basketball, particularly among men the size of Gola, he constantly amazed with his agility and quickness - though since he starred as a miler, half-miler and shot-putter in high school, it shouldn't have been a shock.

The late referee Jocko Conlan liked to tell the story of a La Salle game he worked in which Gola leaped to block the shot of a taller opponent.

``He grabbed the ball with one hand and, while still in the air, threw it downcourt to [teammate] Charlie Singley for a layup,'' Conlan recalled.

In his sophomore season, the Explorers lost in the NIT when Gola sprained an ankle. Then, as a junior, Gola carried La Salle to the NCAA championship and was the tournament MVP.

La Salle was back in the NCAA championship game a year later, but San Francisco, its black stars Bill Russell and K.C. Jones offering a glimpse of the game's future, thumped the Explorers.

NBA teams in those days held exclusive rights to collegians who played within their territory. Gola, signing for $12,000, joined such Philadelphians as Arizin and Ernie Beck on a Warriors team that had finished last in the Eastern Conference the previous season. With the 6-6 Gola at the point, they won the NBA championship in his rookie season.

As a professional, particularly after Chamberlain joined the Warriors in 1959, Gola concentrated almost exclusively on defense, rebounding and assists.

``We had Arizin and [Neil] Johnston when I got there,'' Gola said. ``They were like the top two scorers in the league. Then Wilt came along. My job was to guard the opponents' best guard - Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Bill Sharman - and be a playmaker.''

The league's tallest guard, Gola averaged just over 11 points in 10 seasons but did those other things well enough to make four all-star teams before his career ended in 1966.

``Tom was the kind of player who might score only eight points but who would win you the game,'' said Johnston, his late Warriors teammate.

Capitalizing on his enormous popularity, Gola quickly won election as a state representative in Northeast Philadelphia's 170th District. In 1968, he agreed to coach at his alma mater, La Salle College.

In his initial season, an explosively talented Explorers team that included Ken Durrett, Larry Cannon, Bernie Williams and Roland Taylor went 23-1 and was ranked No. 2 behind Lew Alcindor's UCLA team. But NCAA violations by Gola's ousted predecessor, Jim Harding, led to sanctions, and La Salle was ineligible for the NCAA tournament.

La Salle went 14-12 the following season, and when Gola was elected city controller he resigned as coach.

``When I was in the state legislature, you only had to be in Harrisburg one or two days a week,'' he said. ``But [being] controller was going to require all of my attention.''

The La Salle job would be his last official connection to basketball. Now he runs a Fort Washington insurance agency.

``I don't regret anything,'' Gola said yesterday. ``Your body parts wear out, and you move on to something else. That's life.''

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