Gola remembered as Philly hoops royalty

La Salle University's basketball coach John Giannini, right, hugs Caroline Gola, wife of the late Tom Gola, during his funeral at St. Albert the Great Church in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
La Salle University's basketball coach John Giannini, right, hugs Caroline Gola, wife of the late Tom Gola, during his funeral at St. Albert the Great Church in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 01, 2014

A soaring Polish hymn, "Serdeczna Matko," filled the church. With its high ceiling and wide pews, St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Huntingdon Valley has roughly the dimensions of a decent-sized basketball court. On Thursday, there was Philadelphia basketball royalty in most every pew.

They'd shown up for one of their kings.

It seemed fitting that although so many could have offered personal memories, Tom Gola's funeral Thursday morning featured one pitch-perfect eulogy, by a Christian brother at La Salle University who took those in attendance on a little tour of Gola's life.

And maybe only in Philadelphia could the pastor officiating the service in Gola's home parish talk in just this knowing way, about how in his own house growing up as the son of a La Salle graduate, the list of consequence seemed to be "One, God. Then, the Blessed Mother. And then there was Tom Gola."

They laughed in the pews, but they understood. One consequence of Tom Gola's death Sunday at age 81 was a chance to revisit his legacy, remind people - or even inform them - why the local hoops order is "One, Wilt. Then, Tom Gola." And Wilt Chamberlain used to say his own list started with Tom Gola.

One sentence in Gola's Inquirer obituary fairly summed up why that was so: "With the all-time collegiate rebound leader as their rookie point guard, the Warriors won the NBA championship."

That set of facts explains why younger folks have often been told that Gola was an early version of Magic Johnson. Gola was a college player of the year and a four-time NBA all-star, but scoring wasn't his path to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His teams had other scorers. (Wilt, eventually, was one of them.)

Gola averaged 11.3 points over his 10-year career (and 11.1 points and 10.0 rebounds in 39 career playoff games). When Oscar Robertson and Jerry West came into the league, Gola was assigned to guard them.

"Wherever he was needed, he played and played well," said the Rev. Paul Dougherty, pastor at St. Albert the Great, in his sermon. The end result on the court was "almost surreal," the pastor said.

Gola missed all of the 1956-57 season and part of 1957-58 when he was in the Army. And the Army had tried to get its hands on him earlier. The United States Military Academy had been given approval to push its 6-foot-4 upper height limit for Cadets up a couple of inches if Gola would agree to play basketball at West Point.

There were dozens of other offers, but Gola stayed home and led La Salle to a 102-19 record, including first- and second-place finishes in the NCAA tournament. He was picked as national player of the year by the Helms Foundation in 1954 and by United Press International in 1955.

The son of a policeman, he had grown up in an Olney rowhouse, on North Third Street near Lindley Avenue, one of seven children. In his eulogy, Brother Joseph Grabenstein wondered how they all fit in there.

"No wonder you learned to get along with so many people so early in life," said Grabenstein, La Salle's official archivist. "Tom, you had no other choice."

Dougherty noted the Gola quote that was handed to mourners on a card: "Today I am a contented person. I gave it my best in all that I did, in sports, businesses and in public office. I would have never second-guessed myself."

"Isn't that a wonderful thing to be able to say looking back on your life?" Dougherty asked.

Dougherty said we all know the Nike motto: Just do it. He said to add one word when talking about Tom Gola's life: Just do it right.

Referring to the medical struggles that plagued his later years, Grabenstein said: "Tom, you probably never saw it coming. But you taught us how to endure suffering without complaining."

Grabenstein did note that when he would visit Gola in the nearby nursing home, he would ask if he could get him anything. "Your reply was always the same - a beer."

There was more about Gola's life, as coach of the 23-1 Explorers in 1968-69, and in politics. His own devout Catholicism was mentioned.

Many roads Thursday led back to the court. Grabenstein concluded by wondering if St. Peter had greeted this man by intoning, as Dave Zinkoff always had after a score, "Gola goal!"

The pastor quoted Longfellow. "Not in the clamor of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat."


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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