If he had his way, Tom Gola probably would have preferred his death to be commemorated by family members and a few close friends getting together for a final toast and then going about their business.
But when you live your life to the fullest the way Gola did, it doesn’t happen that way.
Instead, a throng of mourners filled Huntingdon Valley’s St. Albert the Great Church to capacity to celebrate Gola’s funeral on a brisk, sunny Thursday morning, Jan. 30. Several people spoke. Their words were sincere, serious, a bit solemn, sometimes humorous and, above all, complimentary.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give,” said La Salle University’s Brother Joe Grabenstein, quoting Winston Churchill.
(Read the complete eulogy here.)
Brother Joe went on to say that Gola, who died Jan. 26 at the age of 81, humbly accepted his bountiful gifts and truly gave back – to Caroline, his wife whom he married in 1955; to his son, Tom, his two granddaughters, his friends, his community, his church and, above all, to his faith.
While Gola’s claim to fame was basketball, it was his quiet, unassuming approach to living each experience one at a time – while simultaneously acknowledging each of them as a special gift – that defined the man who has often been referred to as a true giant, and not because he stood an imposing 6 feet, 6 inches tall.
Growing up in a nondescript row home near the intersection of 3rd and Lindley streets in Philadelphia’s Olney section and the eldest son of a Philadelphia policeman, Gola attended Incarnation of Our Lord School, La Salle High School and La Salle College. At each venue, Gola became a basketball star.
Indeed, Gola’s basketball exploits are legendary. As a player, he won championships at literally every level of his competition – including the professional ranks when he helped the Philadelphia Warriors capture the NBA title during his rookie season in 1956. He would remain in the NBA for 11 years and be named an all-star five times before finishing with a career average of 11.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. He was named to the NBA’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976.
The nation’s college player of the year in 1955, Gola remains the NCAA’s all-time leading rebounder. In his college career, Gola averaged a remarkable 21 points and 19 rebounds per game, one of the reasons why the late John Wooden, the most successful college coach in history, once called Gola “the best all-around player in basketball history.”
Historically, he is one of only two men to have won a National Invitational Tournament, NCAA and NBA title in the same lifetime. Under Gola’s tutelage from 1968-70, La Salle went 37-13, highlighted by its best-ever record of 23-1 in 1968-69 – this after a playing career during which the Explorers went a remarkable 102-19. It’s no wonder why La Salle’s arena is named in his honor.
Gola even made the most of his brief, two-game opportunity as an NBA coach, having guided the New York Knicks to a pair of victories when forced into temporary head coaching duties as an assistant.
Although he eventually became an ultra-successful politician and businessman, it was basketball that provided the glue that cemented his fan base.
Former La Salle University coach Speedy Morris credited Gola with his collegiate career, stating the La Salle administration was reluctant to hand over the program to Morris because he didn’t have a college degree, but Gola’s strong recommendation assuaged the school’s concerns. Morris, one of the nation’s most successful high school coaches of all time and currently at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, went on to have a successful 15-year run at La Salle, winning a school-record 238 games while reaching the NCAA tournament four seasons.
Morris’s greatest player at La Salle, former NBA forward Lionel Simmons, labeled Gola his “mentor,” and said that Gola had helped him obtain his first sports agent, not to mention buying his first car and home.
“I owe so much to Tom,” Simmons said. “Everywhere he would go, people would stop him and he would be so gracious. He was such an important figure, but it never affected him. He was just kind to everyone he met.”
Temple University coach Fran Dunphy, who was coached by Gola at La Salle, agreed.
“It was never about ‘him’ so much as it was about the people around him,” Dunphy said. “He was one of a kind.”
In a statement issued a few hours after Gola’s death, former Philadelphia Warriors teammate Al Attles called Gola “one of the true gentlemen of the game. His nickname was ‘Saint’ and for good reason.”
Gola once stated that at Incarnation, where he was an altar boy, Father Joseph Belz took the fifth-grade Gola and several other students to the gym and said, “Fellows, I’m going to teach you how to play basketball.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
And then some.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.