"We're just so proud to play in Tom Gola Arena," Giannini said yesterday. "Sometimes in life we take things for granted. I don't think anybody at La Salle took Tom for granted, but you look at the name Tom Gola Arena and you're aware of the great things that he did. To lose him adds a poignancy and a significance and a seriousness in an emotionally hard and sad way."
Gola, who passed away Sunday afternoon, will forever be the face of La Salle basketball. His career stats are astonishing. He brought down 2,201 rebounds in his 4-year career, good for 18.7 per game, and brought the Explorers to national prominence in the 1950s.
"We can't even imagine what La Salle would be without Tom Gola," Giannini said. "He put the place on the map. To get a program on the national stage, you need someone to get it there in the first place. If he doesn't come to La Salle and lead these magnificent teams to Final Fours and NCAA championship and the NIT, which at that time was even bigger than the NCAA Tournament, if he doesn't come in here and become the best player in the country, you don't know if La Salle in the future could achieve the things that came after."
In the span of 5 years, Gola won NIT and NCAA championships and then an NBA title with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956.
Later, he returned to La Salle and led a gifted team to a 23-1 record in 1968-69.
"He was the one that brought great basketball to La Salle, and it is a cliché, but he put the program on the map in a huge way," Giannini said. "He's the highlight. We're amazingly lucky to have two other national players of the year [Michael Brooks and Lionel Simmons], but to win a national championship is something that only a handful of schools can claim. For him to come here and achieve that transforms not just the basketball program but the university.
"When I go through airports throughout the country and somebody sees the La Salle name, I hear shouts of Tom Gola often," Giannini said. "To this day, people associate La Salle University and Tom Gola. It's national, it's especially true to the many college basketball fans throughout the country. They know about La Salle because of Tom Gola."
Giannini said his players have an admiration for the man who long ago preceded them to 20th and Olney.
"They respect what he did as athletes themselves," Giannini said. "When these guys play, they know that getting 20 rebounds in a game is an unlikely career high for most players. To pretty much average that is just astounding. You can only call his accomplishments astounding, and our players certainly understand that having played the game themselves."
On campus yesterday, there were moments of silence held in classes. A picture was placed in the chapel in loving memory of Gola. The La Salle community knows it has lost someone special.
"We are not talking once in a lifetime or once in a generation, we are talking about once in forever," Giannini said. "He is a once in forever person."