"It was a pinstripe with big old wide lapels," is how Chaney tells the story. "And I had this skinny little body. The money that I had, I used that to catch a cab. I'd been given just enough. I didn't want anyone to see me walking to the Warwick. I had this big old tie on, and my head was so small. And I'm getting a gold watch, the gold basketball and stuff. It was the most amazing thing.
"I'm hiding in the bathroom, standing on the toilet stool, keeping a lookout for anyone trying to find me. Finally Tom comes in and says, 'John, come on out here, will ya? We can't take a picture without you.' He kind of sensed what I was going through, and was just trying to make me feel comfortable. But God it was funny. Now, not then. You should have seen the picture. I'll never forget what he did. But that was Tommy. He cared about other people. Just a generous, genuine person."
Gola, who would lead La Salle College to NIT and NCAA championships and later coach an Explorers team that many still consider to be the best in Big 5 history, passed away Sunday at 81. His life had never been the same since he took a horrible fall in 2003. Chaney said there will never be another like him.
"During those years, the only time we played the Catholic schools was exhibitions or for the city championship," said Chaney, a fellow Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. "But all the great players played in the Narberth League. I played with Haddington. I was the first and second Most Valuable Player when they started it. Gola and Ernie Beck played for a team. Wilt played with us. He was an eighth-grader then. But he was still the biggest man out there. That's where he won his first championship.
"But Tommy and Ernie were two of the biggest guards. They could do everything. Bring it up, pass it, play underneath. The thing about Tommy that made him so distinctive, and nobody gave him credit for it, was he would reach around you as you dribbled past and tip the ball away. He did that with the Warriors. Nobody ever did that. Then he'd just take off up the floor. They called it a leakout. That's how you get those birdies at the other end.
"We played all summer long, in different leagues. You'd go looking for guys that were great players. We always wanted to find the best competition. The only two people I'd put in his class, as I see it, was Maurice Stokes, who was also a big guard who could play every position, with a great body like Tommy, and Magic Johnson. During our day, Tommy was everything to us, in this city. He was a phenom. Nobody was as good as Wilt. You put him outside the gate. You go inside, you see other people. Tommy was unbelievable. He had the hands, the smarts, all the tools. When I played against him I had to remember that he always followed his shot to get the rebound. Nobody does that anymore."
Not long after Gola's accident, Chaney visited him in the hospital with Speedy Morris. That day will also stay with Chaney.
"When I walked in, Tommy just shot up and looked," he remembered. "He didn't say one word, just rolled his eyes. I went over and said, 'Tommy, how ya doing? I'm with ya.' I walked around to the other side of the bed, and he turned his head. His legs were propped up and boy, you could see that Greek-like body of his. What a specimen of an athlete. He looked like he was ready to play. We spent like an hour. He couldn't say anything, but there was a lot that was just understood.
"I loved the guy. He was one of a kind. We will never see the likes of this individual. Although you saw many great basketball players during that day, he was as unique as could be."
Spoken like one who can appreciate that.