TOM GOLA was, without any argument, the most accomplished college basketball player in city history. La Salle won the NIT when he was a freshman in 1952, the NCAA when he was a junior in 1954 and finished runner-up to Bill Russell's great San Francisco team when he was a senior.
His death yesterday at 81 serves as a reminder of what he was on the court. It also conjures a nostalgic time from the 1950s when a sporting hero from 3rd and Lindley and Incarnation Grade School never lost sight of his roots and treated every kid who idolized him like he was one of his own.
Gola was not years ahead of his time as a player. He was decades ahead, a 6-6 athletic marvel who could play any position and guard any position.
"He was Magic Johnson before Magic Johnson," said St. Joseph's Prep coach Speedy Morris, who has long believed Gola was influential in his move from coach of the La Salle women to the men in 1986.
The first time Morris saw Gola live was when the Philadelphia Warriors won the 1956 NBA championship.
"After the game, I actually touched his sleeve as he ran by," Morris remembered. "That was my claim to fame."
Morris' idol became a great friend.
"He was my hero growing up," Morris said. "I owed him a lot. I never thought I would have a chance to be a friend of his."
Sonny Hill knows as much Philadelphia basketball history as anyone alive. He adored Tom Gola the player and Tom Gola the man.
"To me, of all the players that I have seen in college basketball, he was the greatest all-around player of all of them,'' Hill said. "Not the most dominant, but what you're talking about is every phase of the game of basketball. He was that good."
Hill did not just watch Gola play. He knew him.
"He was a better human being than he was a basketball player,'' Hill said. "He was one of my heroes."
Hill first saw Gola play at old Convention Hall when La Salle was playing Dayton, then a major basketball power. Gola guarded Dayton's center and then one of its guards.
"He did everything but clean the floor after the game," Hill said.
Gola lived out his final years in a corner room at St. Joseph's Manor on Huntingdon Pike, unable to walk anymore, the toll from a horrible fall in July 2003 finally too much even for the seemingly indestructible Gola to overcome. He was surrounded by memories of his life and his basketball - a picture of the 1955-56 world champion Warriors with Neil Johnston and Paul Arizin, a photo of Tom shaking hands with President Reagan, another with his right arm around Joe DiMaggio and still another with eventual Warriors teammate and fellow city hoops legend Wilt Chamberlain.
Championships just seemed to follow Tom Gola. Or teams with Tom Gola just seemed to win championships.
The year after he graduated from La Salle, he was a rookie on the Warriors' championship team. His teams also won a CYO championship and a Catholic League championship at La Salle High. More than anything in basketball, Tom Gola was a champion. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976.
"In order to understand how great Tom Gola was, where the game is right now with guys between 6-4 and 6-9 who are multidimensional players that can do everything, he did that in the early '50s," Hill said. "He was so far ahead of the game that guys today cannot do what he did. Tom Gola played all five positions defensively. He could bring the ball up the floor. He ran the offense."
In his four seasons at La Salle, Gola scored 2,461 points and took 2,201 rebounds, an NCAA record that will never be broken. He averaged 20.9 points and 18.7 rebounds. His teams had a record of 102-19.
Gola played in 10 NCAA games in his final two seasons. He scored 229 points. He was the Most Outstanding Player in 1954 and on the all-tournament team in 1955.
When La Salle was in NCAA trouble in 1968, Gola signed on to coach Kenny Durrett, Larry Cannon, Bernie Williams, Fatty Taylor, Stan Wlodarczyk and Fran Dunphy. Gola was working in his investment business, was a newly elected state representative and about to run for city controller (he was elected). His school needed him so he found the time.
His team finished 23-1 and most would agree that it was the best team in Big 5 history. If you needed Tom Gola, he was there, always there.
"He was a success story,'' Morris said.
Tom Gola was an American success story, a Philadelphia success story, a La Salle success story. His life story may be over. His time will always be a shining example of what a man playing a sport with rare understanding can accomplish and how many lives a great man can affect.