Phila. basketball community pays respects to Tom Gola

Temple coach Fran Dunphy (left), who played for Tom Gola at La Salle, shares a moment with the university's president, Brother Michael McGinniss, before the funeral.
Temple coach Fran Dunphy (left), who played for Tom Gola at La Salle, shares a moment with the university's president, Brother Michael McGinniss, before the funeral. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 01, 2014

Tom Gola helped Lionel Simmons navigate the purchase of his first home. And his first car. And secure his first sports agent.

Gola persuaded La Salle University that Speedy Morris was the right man for the job, even if Morris lacked the necessary qualifications to be men's basketball coach.

And Gola, Fran Dunphy said, "did not see black or white. He just saw people."

Gola, who died Sunday at age 81, was one of the city's all-time basketball greats, but at Thursday's funeral he was remembered for being much more.

The crowd at St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Huntingdon Valley was dotted with Philadelphia basketball dignitaries.

La Salle coach John Giannini and his staff sat alongside Sonny Hill. Simmons, a former La Salle star, was a few pews behind.

Dunphy, who played under Gola at La Salle and now is the coach at Temple, was seated with Gola's former top assistant, Curt Fromal.

On the other side of church was Morris, who coached 15 seasons at La Salle and is now the coach at St. Joseph's Prep. He was joined by John Miller, the former Explorers women's coach and current girls' coach at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown.

The entire La Salle College High boys' basketball team - the school Gola once led to a city title - filled the church's first three pews.

Morris said he idolized Gola growing up in Roxborough but never thought he would meet him. When he was hired in 1984 to be La Salle's women's coach, Morris finally had his chance.

The men's coaching job opened two years later, and Morris said the school's athletic director wanted to hire him. But there was opposition because Morris did not have a college degree. Gola talked to the school's president and told him Morris was La Salle's man.

Growing up in South Philadelphia in the 1980s, Simmons said he did not know much about Gola except what his summer league coaches told him. When he went to La Salle, Simmons said, he really found out who Gola was.

"He's way bigger than basketball," Simmons said. "The person he is always outweighed basketball."

Dunphy said they were "exciting times" in 1968 when Gola, whom Dunphy called a Philadelphia icon, was named La Salle's head coach. Dunphy was a junior guard, and he said the coach Gola replaced was a taskmaster.

It was a perfect match, Dunphy said, as Gola let his players play freely. That 23-1 team ranks among the best in Big Five history.

"He was kind and generous and considerate," Dunphy said. "You didn't have to talk to him every day, but you knew he was with you, and he was always by your side."

Giannini's team will wear black circular patches with Gola's No. 15 for the rest of the season. He said none of his players needed a lesson on who Gola was.

When recruits visit the Olney campus, Gola is the first person they learn about. Giannini tells them about Gola's college player of the year honors and his NCAA and NBA championships.

The legacy of Gola, Giannini said, creates a feeling that anything is possible at La Salle.

"What greater gift can you give to people than great memories and a sense of what's possible?" he said.


mbreen@phillynews.com

@matt_breen

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