We were working on a story on Larry King for the Sun-Sentinel’s now departed Sunshine, the Sunday magazine. After his TV show King crossed the Potomac into Arlington and did a two-hour radio show that ran until after midnight. It was mostly about sports. During one of the commercial breaks he asked where we went to school. We barely got the word “La Salle” out when he said, “I can see Tom Gola in the Garden now. La Salle had sleeves on their uniforms. What a ball player.”
They are telling stories like that today – at least those who remember college ball from the 1950s – in the memory of Tom Gola who died Sunday after a long illness. John Wooden, the great UCLA coach, called him the greatest all-round player he ever saw. Wilt Chamberlain once said he wasn’t Philadelphia’s best basketball player; Tom Gola was.
The man put La Salle on the map. Gola led La Salle to an NIT championship, at the time more important than the NCAA tournament. Two years later his team won the NCAA, the first championship game televised, and the following year La Salle was runner-up to San Francisco, which had Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. Gola was an All-American four straight years. He still holds the NCAA record for rebounds. As a student sports writer at La Salle, we advanced his height every year, whether he grew or not. We maxed him out at 6 feet, 8 iches. In fact, he was slightly under 6 feet, 6 inches, and that got him in the Army when the height limit was exactly that. Gola just seemed like a giant on the court, and his true height makes his rebounding feat all the more remarkable.
It was his speed that created the illusion. He was flat out fast – Philadelphia 440 champion in high school (Wilt Chamberlain was the same a few years later), and won the state 880. His hands were just as quick. Think Larry Bird when it comes to passing.
Some of us had the chance to see Tom Gola play in both high school at La Salle High, La Salle College and in the NBA - also as a La Salle coach for a team that went 23-1, but was not eligible for post-season play. He was an emergency coach, when the previous coach got us in NCAA trouble. Gola had a day job and just showed up for practice. He had a wonderful team that included Larry Cannon and Ken Durrett. Asked about his success, Gola said: "I had the horses. All I did was hand them the ball.
Larry Cannon, who lives in Florida, met with our La Salle alumni board a few years ago. Asked about Gola as a coach, Larry said: "He knew not to over coach us."
In 1957, just after Gola graduated, our ROTC camp was in Oklahoma. We were with fellows from all over - Stanford, the Big 10 schools, Auburn, NC state, VMI, Princeton - and they all seemed impressed that we had gone to La Salle. None of them knew our campus at the time was barely more than a large square block, and that our enrollment was fewer than 2,000. It is hard to imagine anyone who did more for any school than Tom Gola did for La Salle. Maybe John Harvard or Cornelius Vanderbilt, or Knute Rockne - but none of them could go to their left, and rebound.
There was a good piece on Philly.com about how Tom Gola revived basketball in New York after the point shaving scandals of the early 50s. They hurt the NY college programs, among the country's best at the time. Then came Gola, who played in the Garden and was a great hit with NY fans and the press.
It is often forgotten, but there was another all-round player in the Gola college era. Maurice Stokes at St. Francis did not get as much attention, but he was in the same class as Gola, and was a great pro for three seasons before a head injury ended his career. Ironically, it was the kind of injury Tom Gola suffered much later in life. Stokes died in 1970.
In his later years, Tom Gola vacationed in Palm Beach. He loved golf, and few pros at our country clubs would not recall him.
Another little story. At La Salle we had an English prof, who was a nerd’s nerd. In his senior year, when Tom Gola was player of the year, Gola stood up to answer a question in Dr. App’s class. Dr. App was from Lawrence Welk territory, where people sounded foreign born.
“Vista Gola,” Dr. App said. “You’re such a big vellla. You should be on zee basketball team.”