Gola's legacy: He did it all in Philly

Posted: February 03, 2014

In 1956, to enter the first-grade classroom at Incarnation of Our Lord Parish School in Olney, you had to climb a flight of outdoor steps.

Near their base, as uninviting and spooky as a crypt, was a sunken doorway that opened to a dark and spookier basement gym.

"Down there," our nun noted, in a tone so reverent she might have been describing the Bethlehem stable, "is where Tom Gola learned to play basketball."

It was a humble birthplace for a god.

In case you missed the news, god is dead.

At 81, long confined to a nursing home, Gola died last week.

Nearly six decades ago, Tom Gola was a figure of myth in our Albanus Street rowhouse, located just around the corner from his. In my innocent eyes, he was incandescent, incorruptible, and surely indestructible.

My father, like his idol a La Salle High graduate, early on initiated me in Gola lore. To do so properly, he believed, I needed to understand that as astonishing as his accomplishments and abilities were, he could easily have done more.

"He could have scored 30 a game if he weren't so unselfish."

"He could have been a baseball star. He could hit a baseball a mile and was the best catcher I've ever seen."

"He could have been an Olympian in track and field."

I committed his litany of greatness, both real and imagined, to memory, as if it were a sacred text.

Because of my family's passion for and proximity to this square-jawed future Hall-of-Famer, I was treated to all manner of first- and secondhand Gola experiences.

With my mother keeping score in a spiral notebook, my parents listened to all of his games on the radio. They found newspaper articles about him in The Inquirer, Bulletin, and Olney Times and read them to me the way many children were read bedtime stories.

They took me to see his summer-league basketball games at Front and Duncannon Streets, and sometimes we'd spot him after Mass, a crowd gathered around him on Incarnation's North Fifth Street steps.

Best of all, my father and Gola played together on the parish softball team. At one of their games, on a summer night seared into my memory, the 6-foot-6 basketball superstar lifted me onto his shoulders.

I did not get a photo, but I have not been so near heaven since.

For many of us, a first sports idol remains as indelible as a first love.

Too young to know the world, too naive to understand its shortcomings, we invest our earliest heroes with impossible attributes.

Later, as happened for me with Eddie Mathews and Dick Allen, we're often disappointed, disillusioned by the humanity time reveals.

Not with Gola, though. From my vantage point, he was always as good a man as I wanted to believe he was.

It's curious that he died in the midst of the 50th- anniversary commemorations for so many baby boomer touchstones - JFK's assassination, the Beatles' U.S. arrival, the '64 Phillies' collapse.

His death tolled the end of an equally significant Philadelphia story.

To me, a kid whose narrow universe was spanned by the Market-Frankford El, Philly was basketball's mecca.

All the proof I needed was on my mother's score sheets.

Before each of the 1960-61 Warriors games, she would write down the four starters she was sure of, four players who had grown up in Philadelphia rowhouses - Gola, Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin, and Guy Rodgers.

Think of it. Four-fifths of an NBA playoff team bred in a geographical area not much larger than Fairmount Park.

And they weren't just four ordinary players.

Together they were named to 32 NBA All-Star Games. At one point or another, each led college or pro basketball in either scoring, assists, or rebounds. (Chamberlain alone led the NBA in all three categories.) Three of them are in basketball's Hall of Fame and it's a travesty that the fourth - Rodgers - is not.

What's amazing and still, all these years later, incredibly frustrating is that that team did not win a championship - outstripped, as always back then, by Boston and its carpetbagger Celtics.

Philadelphia has produced a lot of great basketball players since. But we're not likely to see such a spectacular cluster again.

Wilt died at 63 in 1999, Rodgers at 65 two years later. Arizin, who lived to 78, passed in 2006.

Since Gola succumbed last Sunday, these pages have contained a week's worth of remembrances. They may turn out to be a final tribute.

Who knows how, or even if, his name will resonate in the future?

Most likely, as happens with virtually all sports heroes, his legend will fade away as those who saw him play do the same.

His will be one of those vaguely recognizable names from a black-and-white Philadelphia sports past, like Joey Giardello, Eddie Gottlieb, or Al Simmons.

Gola's greatest legacy, for me anyway, is that he did it all in Philadelphia, a hometown his nasal accent betrayed and his heart loved dearly.

I hope that, in the nursing home where he died, news never reached him about Incarnation.

Seven months ago, the archdiocese announced the closing of the venerable parish at Fifth and Lindley where he went to school, attended Mass, and discovered basketball.

Once the city's controller, Gola would understand the financial realities that necessitated the decision. But it would have pained him nonetheless.

The break with the past it represents is, much like Gola's death itself, one more civic loss.

Churches close their doors. Communities are diminished. Heroes die.

And basketball stars leave.

For a long time now, most of Philly's hoops heroes haven't emulated Gola, choosing instead to abandon their hometown to play collegiately and professionally elsewhere.

You can't blame them. The world of possibilities has grown, our horizons have expanded, the ties that once bound us so tightly and permanently to Philadelphia loosened long ago.

That's why we'll miss Tom Gola.

His legend began behind that foreboding Incarnation door. But the man was born here, lived here, died here.



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