Philadelphia basketball great Tom Gola dies

"When I was growing up, you whispered the name Tom Gola. He was like a saint," Wilt Chamberlain said. Gola (center, rear) with fellow Philadelphia sports legends (from left) John Chaney, Joe Frazier, Harry Kalas, Julius Erving, and Chuck Bednarik.
"When I was growing up, you whispered the name Tom Gola. He was like a saint," Wilt Chamberlain said. Gola (center, rear) with fellow Philadelphia sports legends (from left) John Chaney, Joe Frazier, Harry Kalas, Julius Erving, and Chuck Bednarik. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: January 28, 2014

Tom Gola, 81, a giant from Philadelphia basketball's greatest generation who parlayed his fame as perhaps the most honored player in college history into a career in the NBA, politics, and business, died Sunday at St. Joseph's Manor in Meadowbrook.

Mr. Gola had been convalescing ever since he suffered a head injury in a fall from a Philadelphia curb on July 25, 2003.

"Tom Gola is known by all as a truly great player and coach, but it was the man that was most cherished at La Salle," said the team's current coach, John Giannini.

"Tom was a Philadelphia icon whose name is synonymous with basketball," said La Salle's president, Brother Michael J. McGinniss.

The square-jawed son of a Philadelphia policeman, Mr. Gola had led a life so charmed it seemed to have been scripted for a fictional hero.

He won championships at every level, from elementary school to the NBA, coached a college team many consider to be the best in Big Five history, was elected to state and citywide offices as well as the basketball Hall of Fame, became a successful businessman, and saw his alma mater's arena named in his honor.

Not bad for someone who grew up in an Olney rowhouse, just around the corner from the Incarnation of Our Lord parish gym, where he learned the game that would make him a local legend.

Mr. Gola transformed Incarnation's team into national schoolboy champions; paced La Salle College High to a city title; and then, at La Salle College, enjoyed astounding success.

With Mr. Gola as their do-everything star, the Explorers won the 1952 National Invitation Tournament title and 1954 NCAA title and, in his senior season of 1955, were NCAA runners-up. In his four years there, La Salle won 102 of 121 games.

He was an MVP in those NCAA and NIT titles, the college player of the year in 1955, and the first player named a first-team all-American four consecutive seasons.

He scored more than 20 points a game, although he probably could have averaged 30. And though he frequently brought the ball up court for coach Ken Loeffler's La Salle teams, Mr. Gola managed to collect an astounding 2,201 rebounds, an NCAA career record that has stood for more than half a century.

Then, in his rookie season with the hometown Warriors, who had made him a territorial pick, Mr. Gola helped Philadelphia win the 1956 NBA championship.

He was a five-time NBA all-star during his 10 pro seasons, but Mr. Gola became primarily a defensive specialist. He averaged 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists a game before retiring in 1966 after a stint with the New York Knicks.

Mr. Gola coached two seasons at his alma mater, most notably guiding the Explorers to a 23-1 record and a No. 2 national ranking in 1968-69. But because of NCAA violations during the tenure of his predecessor, Jim Harding, those Explorers were ineligible for postseason play.

He coached one more season at La Salle and then concentrated on politics.

Mr. Gola had been elected a state representative in his Northeast Philadelphia district in 1966. In 1969, he ran for city controller on a Republican ticket that included district attorney candidate Arlen Specter. Both men won by substantial margins in a heavily Democratic city.

After being defeated in a reelection bid in 1973, Mr. Gola returned to the political arena a decade later when he sought the Republican nomination for mayor. But in one of the most stinging defeats in a life that knew few, he finished last in a three-man field.

He then focused on his Fort Washington insurance agency, occasionally dabbling in real estate and other business ventures.

Along with Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin, and Guy Rodgers, Mr. Gola was one of a pantheon of future Hall of Famers from Philadelphia who in the 1950s dominated city basketball at every level. In fact, Chamberlain, whom many still consider to be the greatest player of all time, once said Gola belonged at the top of that list.

"When I was growing up, you whispered the name Tom Gola. He was like a saint," said Chamberlain, who was an Overbrook schoolboy when Gola starred at La Salle.

At 6-foot-6, Mr. Gola was a rarity for his era - a versatile superstar who was capable of playing any position. He excelled without flash or flamboyance. Sonny Hill, another Philadelphia hoops legend, compared him to Magic Johnson. "Tom was a big guy who could handle the ball and do it all," Hill said.

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976, he also was the first person to be honored twice by the Big Five Hall of Fame, as a coach in 1986 and, in 2000, as an "old-timer" since he played before the Big Five's creation.

"There wasn't anything he couldn't do on a basketball court," Charlie Mohr, a teammate of Gola's on the 1949-50 La Salle High team that won the city championship, said in 1998. "He could play point guard, center, and shut down the opponent's big man."

Philadelphia beginnings

Thomas J. Gola was born Jan. 13, 1933, the first of seven children (three boys, four girls) of Ike and Helen Gola.

His Polish father, a patrolman stationed in the Ninth District at 20th and Buttonwood Streets, had shortened the family's name from Galinsky, inadvertently creating a surname that Philadelphia Warriors announcer Dave Zinkoff would use to great effect after each of Mr. Gola's baskets, punctuating them with excited cries of "Gola goallllll!"

Though his parents were both under 6 feet, Mr. Gola reached that height before he left elementary school. It was his altar-boy overseer at Incarnation, the Rev. Joseph Belz, who introduced the fifth grader to basketball.

"Father took all the boys over to the gym and said, 'Fellows, I'm going to teach you how to play basketball,' " Gola said in 1998.

By the time Mr. Gola was in eighth grade, Incarnation's team, coached by Lefty Huber, had won a state and national championship despite playing and practicing in a cramped basement gym where the tops of the backboards 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," James Cunningham, a longtime parishioner who moved to Olney in 1923, recalled in a 1998 interview.

Eventually, the Golas erected a basket in the backyard of their home at 5110 N. Third St. When Hurricane Hazel felled that hoop in 1954, Mr. Gola's mother wept.

"That was the last link with Tommy's childhood," Helen Gola told Sports Illustrated.

Her son entered La Salle College High School as a ballyhooed 6-foot freshman in the fall of 1947. A year later, he had sprouted to 6-foot-5, and his basketball ability seemed to rise just as rapidly.

Obie O'Brien, his high school coach, most frequently played Mr. Gola 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, so much so that sportswriters of the day liked to call him the "Phlegmatic Pole."

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

Mr. Gola set a Catholic League scoring record each season. He ended his scholastic career with 2,222 points and as a senior won the Markward Award as the league's top player. (The Public League winner that year was future Temple coach, Ben Franklin's John Chaney.)

In that era of flat-footed basketball, particularly among men the size of Mr. Gola, he was unusually agile and quick. He also starred on La Salle's track team as miler, half-miler, and shot-putter.

As his fame spread, La Salle High games became events. Recruiters from more than 60 colleges routinely flocked to them as well as to the afternoon practices at La Salle's North Philadelphia gym, which also was home to the La Salle College team.

Loeffler, the college's coach, kept a close eye on the prodigy, though he always insisted that he didn't introduce himself until after Mr. Gola had graduated.

Loeffler patiently watched as the talented player visited some of the nation's most recognized coaches and schools, including Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and Everett Case at North Carolina State. (Gola later said an alumnus at the latter school offered him $250 a month.) Army even promised to waive its long-standing 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."

But swayed by the Christian Brothers as much as by Loeffler, Mr. Gola, a devout Catholic throughout his life, chose La Salle.

As a freshman in 1952, he led the school of fewer than 1,000 students to a 25-7 record and the highly regarded NIT title, averaging 15 points and 15 rebounds.

The next season, the Explorers went 25-2 in the regular season. But Gola injured an ankle before the NIT, and La Salle lost by a point to St. John's in that tourney's opener.

The Philadelphian's fame spread quickly. At Madison Square Garden, where he played 23 times as a collegian, fans mimicked those at Convention Hall and chanted, "Go, Gola, go!" whenever he - No. 15 in the distinctive, short-sleeved La Salle uniform of the era - touched the ball.

In the 1953-54 season, Mr. Gola and Frank O'Hara were the only returning starters. But the Explorers surprised, going 26-4 and capturing the school's first and only NCAA championship with a 92-76 victory over Bradley in the title game at Kansas City.

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

His hometown newspapers daily dissected his life and career in minute detail. Readers learned that the high-cheekboned accounting major, nicknamed "Ostrich" by teammates, loved comic books, Stan Kenton's band, and playing the harmonica.

He seemed too good to be true.

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

A year after winning the championship, he pushed La Salle back to the NCAA title game in 1955. This time, in Mr. Gola's final collegiate game, the Explorers lost to the University of San Francisco and its twin stars, future Hall of Famers Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.

He graduated with an accounting degree and that summer married Caroline Ann Morris, whom he'd met a few years earlier in Wildwood, N.J. Their honeymoon was spent on a U.S. State Department basketball tour of Mexico and Central America.

On to the NBA

NBA teams in those days held exclusive rights to collegians who played within their geographical territories. Mr. Gola signed for a salary of $11,500 plus a $6,000 bonus and joined such fellow Philadelphians as Arizin and Ernie Beck on a Warriors team that had finished last in the Eastern Conference the previous season.

"It was something you'd do naturally," Mr. Gola once said of his transition to the pros. "There was really no work to it. In those days, you would play for nothing. The money wasn't the big thing."

Mr. Gola's remarkable run of success continued. With the all-time collegiate rebound leader as their rookie point guard, Eddie Gottlieb's Warriors won the NBA championship.

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

"We had Arizin and [Neil] Johnston when I got there," Mr. 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."

Then the league's tallest guard, he averaged just over 11 points in 10 seasons but did those other things well enough to make five all-star teams.

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

When the Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1962, Mr. Gola asked to be traded so he could remain close to home. He spent his last four NBA seasons with the Knicks, commuting between his home in Fox Chase and New York. He retired in 1966 because "I just figured I had hit the end of the trail."

Immediately afterward, Mr. Gola ran into William A. Meehan, head of the city's Republican party, who had coached the young star in a summer basketball league in the early 1950s. Meehan urged him to run for the state legislature, and Mr. Gola was elected in 1966.

Two years later, while still in the legislature, Mr. Gola agreed to coach at his alma mater.

In his initial season, an explosively talented Explorers team that included Ken Durrett, Larry Cannon, Bernie Williams, and Fran Dunphy went 23-1 and was ranked No. 2 nationally behind only Lew Alcindor's UCLA powerhouse. But the NCAA sanctions prevented La Salle from testing itself in the tournament.

The following season, La Salle slumped to 14-12, 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."

During their initial campaign, Mr. Gola and Specter were seen often in television ads touting their campaign slogan: "They're tougher. They're younger. And nobody owns them."

He spent much of his first two years as controller butting heads with Democratic Mayor James H.J. Tate. Mr. Gola filed suit against Tate to force the mayor to lift a hiring freeze, and challenged invoices and work done on the construction of Veterans Stadium, which opened in 1971.

His audit of the city's Model Cities program uncovered a scandal that led to a criminal indictment. Mr. Gola and Specter lost their bids for reelection in 1973, when Republicans were feeling the effects of the Watergate scandal.

After leaving office, Mr. Gola ran his insurance agency, was active in other business ventures, and played a lot of golf.

At one point, he was a partner in companies that handled the city's sewage and trash. But controversy arose when it was disclosed that another partner was linked to an alleged organized-crime figure. Mr. Gola bought the partner out.

Mr. Gola still had a taste for politics. After rejecting a request from then-Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, who could not seek a third term, to think about running for mayor as a Democrat, he became Philadelphia chairman of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.

The following year, he was appointed by the Reagan administration as regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In November 1982, after Mayor William Green said he would not seek reelection, Mr. Gola informed Meehan he would consider running. But Meehan, who claimed Mr. Gola never made his intentions clear, shocked his former protégé by endorsing John Egan.

Mr. Gola stayed in the race, but without the GOP establishment's backing, he finished last in a three-man field, behind Egan and Charles Dougherty.

He returned to his insurance agency and avoided the limelight for the rest of his life.

The La Salle job was his last official connection to basketball. In 1998, the school refurbished its on-campus arena, the Hayman Center, and renamed it for its most famous alumnus.

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

Mr. Gola is survived by his wife; a son, Thomas; and two granddaughters.

Funeral plans were not announced Sunday night.


HIGHLIGHTS

Was the MVP on La Salle teams that won the NIT title in 1952 and the NCAA title in 1954.

In his rookie season, he helped the Philadelphia Warriors win the NBA title in 1956.

As a coach, he guided the Explorers to a 23-1 record and a No. 2 national ranking in 1968-69.

Elected city controller in 1969.

Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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