A visit with the legendary Tom Gola

Posted: March 21, 2013

THE GREAT GOLA is 80 now. Monday afternoon, the La Salle legend was seated in a wheelchair, just outside his upper-floor corner room in St. Joseph's Manor, connected to Holy Redeemer Hospital on Huntingdon Pike. There are Philadelphia sporting icons and then there is Tom Gola - CYO champion, Catholic League champion, NIT champion, NCAA champion, NBA champion, an unparalleled resume of accomplishment in this city or really any city.

A few hours earlier, his wife Caroline had filled in the blank pages from the last 10 years. It was July 25, 2003, when the seemingly indestructible Gola, following a day on a sweltering golf course, stepped outside a Blue Bell restaurant to get some fresh air, slipped, hit his head on a curb, lapsed into a coma and nearly died.

Gola was taken first to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and then to Bryn Mawr Rehab Center.

"He was getting better," Caroline said. "We went down to Florida for the winter. He was doing therapy. He was going to get his driver's license and play golf again. It wasn't going great, but it was moving along."

Then, Gola had a "terrible seizure."

"It set him right back absolutely to square one," Caroline said. "Six months later, he had another one. Every time, he would go right back and lose everything. He was still home. He was moving around slowly. I thought he was coming along quite well. Then, he developed colon cancer. He came out from that OK. Tom's a tough man."

Every 6 months, Caroline said, something would happen. Then, Tom started to fall.

"The last time, he said, 'I can't walk, I just can't walk,' " Caroline remembered.

So the decision was made to take him to St. Joseph's, not too far across the city line from the Golas' Philadelphia home.

"There is only so much a body can take, but Tom is a strong man," Caroline said.

Caroline warned that talking to her husband would be a struggle. The effects of the seizures are obvious in his slowing voice, but, give him a name or a place or an event, and he recalls, if not every detail, enough to take him and you back in time.

"It has been a long time since I played basketball, a long time since I went to school," Gola said.

Kenny Durrett?

"Schenley High School in Pittsburgh."

Bill Russell?

"He was 6-9 and we played San Francisco for the championship. I was the big man for La Salle."

Gola ran track in high school.

"The 440 was once around the track," he said. "The 880 was twice around. I didn't like that. I didn't have to get in shape for basketball because my basketball predated my track."

Gola remembers walking home from Incarnation Grade School for lunch every day. He remembers playing in a city-wide basketball tournament at La Salle High where his team won and he would eventually play himself.

"My classmates went to North Catholic or Olney High School, if they went to public school," Gola said.

Gola's room is a treasure trove of memories.

He is there in a picture of the 1955-56 world champion Warriors with Neil Johnston and Paul Arizin. He is pictured on the 1954 All-American team with LSU's Bob Petitt, Kentucky's Cliff Hagan, Furman's Frank Selvy and Indiana's Don Schlundt.

On one wall is an autographed painting of Sam Snead, near a photo of Tom shaking hands with President Reagan.

There is Tom with his right arm around Joe DiMaggio. Here are young Tom and young Caroline.

There is a picture with eventual Warriors teammate and fellow Philadelphia legend Wilt Chamberlain, with the inscription: "To Tom, Love and Peace, I think we still may be able, Big Dipper. P.S. If you'd only passed more often, I would have scored 100 a couple of more times."

Last Saturday, Caroline was in New York, where the inaugural class of Atlantic 10 legends was honored. She was representing La Salle's honoree, her husband.

"It was lovely," Caroline said.

Dayton's honoree was Don "Monk" Meineke. He was a senior on the Dayton team that La Salle and freshman Tom Gola beat to win the 1952 NIT. Meineke would go on to be named the first NBA rookie of the year in 1953.

"He came over to me and said, 'I'm so happy to meet you in person,' " Caroline said. " 'Tom won that game for La Salle. I remember saying, Dear Lord, why would you do this to me, I'm a senior and I don't have a chance to get better, but this kid has 3 more years to get better.' "

In his four seasons at La Salle, Tom Gola scored 2,461 points and got 2,201 rebounds, an NCAA record that has no chance of ever being approached. He averaged 20.9 points and 18.7 rebounds. Twice in the NIT, twice in the NCAA, a record of 102-19.

La Salle was in trouble in 1968. A previous coaching regime had gotten the program in NCAA trouble.

Durrett, Larry Cannon, Bernie Williams, Fatty Taylor and Stan Wlodarczyk needed a coach. Gola, busy with his investment business, a newly elected state representative in the process of running for a city controller job he would win, agreed to help his alma mater.

He would coach all those great players to a 23-1 record. Big 5 historians will tell you it was the greatest team in city history. They were not allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament because of a probation, but their legacy will live on forever.

"The reality is that he was the most invincible guy," said Temple coach Fran Dunphy, a reserve on that La Salle team. "When I was younger, he was like Superman. To see him in this state, it is heartbreaking. You would never have predicted this is how he would live the latter part of his life.

"I just have all good memories. He took on a very difficult task and he had an extraordinary team. The guys that were on that team were so good. He just had a great way about handling them, just letting us play. He couldn't be there all the time. He was a pretty busy guy with the political world and all that. They were wonderful times. I wish that I could tell him that now and we could have a great conversation about it."

When Speedy Morris was coaching the La Salle women's team, Gola stopped in to watch a few of his practices.

Morris is certain that Gola helped convince then-athletic director Bill Bradshaw to hire Speedy as the men's coach. They have been very close friends ever since.

Gola gave Morris several mementoes from his home to put in his La Salle office. One was his 1952 NIT MVP trophy.

Bradshaw told Morris a story about being at an event with Gola and Bob Knight when the Indiana coach said: "Can you do me a favor, can you introduce me to Tom Gola? He's the only guy that played back then that could play for me now. He was my hero."

Back in this city in the 1950s and 1960s, Tom Gola was everybody's hero. And that would include a kid from Incarnation parish, a kid whose family never could have afforded to send him to La Salle High without Gola's financial help.

Gola was very successful in business yet never forgot where he came from, 3rd and Lindley, two blocks from Incarnation. He got on the J bus, a 1.8-mile trip to 20th and Olney, then the site of La Salle High and La Salle College. The high school has long since moved to Wyndmoor, the university remains, exactly 7.2 miles from St. Joseph's Manor.

Gola was a 6-6 athletic marvel of his era. He jumped center and played point guard. He had every skill imaginable, was years ahead of his time and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame nearly 4 decades ago.

Morris listened to the La Salle-Bradley NCAA championship game when he was 12 years old. He remembers Gola's coach, Ken Loeffler, saying, "I've got Tom Gola and four students."

Morris saw Gola live for the first time when the Warriors beat the Fort Wayne Pistons for the 1956 NBA championship.

Morris, now the St. Joseph's Prep coach, visits Gola regularly. Two visits ago, he had on some Prep gear and Gola said, "They stink."

They did then. They don't now. So much has changed.

The 75th NCAA Tournament began Tuesday night in Dayton. Wednesday night, 59 years to the day Gola and La Salle won that 1954 NCAA championship, La Salle will play Boise State. It will be the first NCAA game in 21 years for Tom Gola's school.

"I'm delighted about La Salle," Caroline said. "I hope things go well for them."

The great Gola played in 10 NCAA games in his final two seasons.

A few months ago, the NCAA announced its 75th anniversary team. Inexplicably, Gola was not on it. When he was asked why Gola was not on the team, an NCAA official admitted they made a mistake.

Gola was the Most Outstanding Player when La Salle won the 1954 championship. He was a member of the all-tournament team in 1955 when Bill Russell and San Francisco beat the Explorers in the championship game. In his 10 NCAA games, Gola scored 229 points. In 1954, Gola scored 28, 26, 22, 19 and 19 points. The next year, it was 22, 24, 30, 23 and 16. His team won every game but one.

La Salle plays its games in Tom Gola Arena.

"I appreciate you remembering him," Caroline said.

In this town, nobody will ever forget Tom Gola.

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