Gola's spirit lives on in La Salle archives

Tom Gola. (Staff file photo)
Tom Gola. (Staff file photo)
Posted: January 29, 2014

On Monday, the box came down from the top shelf in the basement archives of La Salle's University's College Hall.

Brother Joseph Grabenstein, La Salle University's archivist, had been filling the box for years. Out came gold shorts that looked more like modern swim trunks. A game jersey with 15 on the front and back. A plain gray sweatshirt.

Sunday night, Grabenstein had stayed up working on a timeline of Tom Gola's life. He noted at the top of the first page, This edition: January 26, 2014 (midnight).

The day Tom Gola died.

The timeline is 12 pages long, meticulously footnoted, noting that Yogi Berra once called Gola "the DiMaggio of basketball," but the notations go beyond Gola's basketball career, noting, for instance, how Gola was elected president of his class three times in high school. (source: Wisterian, May 25, 1951, p. 5). It includes Gola's wedding date, June 25, 1955.

At La Salle University, Tom Gola remains far more than a name on the arena, even outside that arena.

The timeline duly notes the 2,201 career rebounds, still an NCAA record, the two-time national player of the year honors by separate organizations, the NCAA title in 1954 on the day of the 91st anniversary of the chartering of La Salle College by the Pennsylvania Legislature. The all-American honors all four years, the rookie year as a point guard when the Warriors won the NBA title.

The archivist had more anecdotal information, like how a local Italian-American organization had offered to enter Gola in its Hall of Fame, unaware his policeman father had shortened the family name from the original Galinsky.

On Monday, a student worker had admitted to Grabenstein, "I thought he was already dead."

"Your generation isn't supposed to know that - only us dinosaurs know his impact," the Christian brother told her.

There was a similar conversation down 20th Street at the campus bookstore between a student cashier and the store general manager, although if there is any spot on campus where the spirit of Gola should linger, it is inside that bookstore.

"I'm told the parquet floor is underneath this," general manager Mark Allen said.

The brick Collegiate Gothic building with the high windows is where Gola played his high school games, for La Salle College High School (scoring 2,222 points), and also where La Salle College practiced when Gola both played for and coached the Explorers.

A checkout counter sits about where a basket once would have been. Hats are for sale down at the other basket. Gola took his prep classes upstairs before the high school moved and the college fully took over the building. By the time Gola coached practice in the same gym, it was named Wister Hall.

Nothing has the name Gola on it in the bookstore. But there are La Salle basketball jerseys for sale ($64.98), men's, women's and youth sizes. There is only one number on all the jerseys. "Just 15 - Tom Gola's number," Allen said.

Inside the arena named for him, Gola's image is on every floor of the building. In the first-floor hallway just outside the pool, faux stained glass surrounds Gola's image. This originally had been Gola's display at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. When they remodeled up there, the display came to La Salle.

"My father graduated from here in '52,' " said Brother John Kane, the director of academic support in La Salle's athletic department, himself a 1980 graduate. Kane remembers going to see the great teams Gola coached, raving about Ken Durrett and Larry Cannon, how they were the best ever.

"My father said, 'No, no, no. You don't understand,' " Kane said. "He was the best passer, ball-handler, shooter, rebounder, leader."

"He was our iconic figure," said La Salle coach John Giannini, noting that it was Gola who had made the school's name known nationally.

Grabenstein, the archivist, had gotten to know Gola and his wife Caroline over the years as he added to his research collection.

"Super approachable, even though he walked with presidents, mayors, governors," Grabenstein said. "He never lost touch."

The timeline noted all the honors, his political offices, his time as La Salle's coach of two great teams, including one widely considered the best in Big Five history, and also the 2003 fall that temporarily left Gola in a coma, and affected his health for the rest of his days.

On Sunday, Grabenstein had gone to St. Joseph Manor, the nursing home adjacent to Holy Redeemer Hospital in Meadowbrook. The family told him he arrived a minute too late to say goodbye.

The archivist went home to work on the timeline. His last entry was January 26, 2014: Tom Gola died at St. Joseph Manor circa 1:10 p.m. in the presence of his wife Caroline, his sister-in-law Paulette, his niece Caroline, and several members of the St. Joseph Manor staff.

"I could talk for a long time about him," Brother Joseph said Monday afternoon in his office. "How long do you have?"


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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