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New York Knicks Hall of Famer Tom Gola Dies at 81

February 2nd, 2014 at 8:00 AM
By Matt Agne

It's easy for newer generations to forget about those who played before their lifetime. After all, they're just old guys right? Well, yes, Tom Gola was old. He lived to the ripe old age of 81. However, throughout his Hall of Fame playing days he was a La Salle hero, a Philadelphia basketball legend and a proud member of the New York Knicks.

'philadelphia' photo (c) 2008, Rupert Ganzer - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Tom Gola was born and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was 6'6", 205 pounds and played guard and small forward. Gola went to college from 1951-55 at La Salle and is regarded as one of the greatest NCAA basketball players of all-time.

As a freshman, Gola led La Salle to the 1952 N.I.T. championship and was named the tournament's Co-MVP. In 1954, the Explorers won the NCAA basketball championship where he was named Tournament MVP. That season he was also named the Helms Foundation Player of the Year. In his final year in college La Salle finish in second place in the 1955 NCAA Tournament, losing to a Bill Russell led University of San Francisco. Despite the loss, Gola was named the UPI Player of the Year.

By the end of his college career, Gola was named a Consensus first team All-American three times (1953-55) and still holds the NCAA record with 2,201 career rebounds. During his 115 games at La Salle he averaged 20.9 points and 19.0 rebounds.

Gola was known as a player with the rebounding and defensive skills of a forward who possessed the passing, dribbling skills and shooting range of a guard. However, it was his All-Pro defensive skills that led to his number 15 being retired at La Salle.

In 1961, Gola was inducted into the La Salle Hall of Athletes. In 1977, he was inducted into the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame. In 1986, he was inducted into the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 1986.

Gerald Eskenazi of The New York Times reports how Gola was once honored at Madison Square Garden for his collegiate play.

On the 50th anniversary of Madison Square Garden’s Holiday Festival in 2002, Gola was honored as one of the tournament’s five greatest players, along with Princeton’s Bill Bradley, Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, Chris Mullin of St. John’s and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of U.C.L.A.

Then, of course, there was his pro career. Gola was selected by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1955 as a territorial draft pick. Joining the established Philadelphia stars, Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston, Gola and the Warriors won the 1956 NBA championship. Gola's career was interrupted from 1956-58 when he served in the Army.

In 1959, the Warriors added  Wilt Chamberlain to the fold but they were unable to capture another title despite another NBA Finals appearance. Gola played with the New York Knicks from 1962-66. On April 26, 1976, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

'New York Knicks' photo (c) 2009, Mike - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Pretty remarkable basketball career right? It's not over. Gola became the head coach at La Salle in 1968 and led the Explorers to a 23-1 record during the 1968-69 season. Philadelphia and New York journalists named him Coach of the Year. Unfortunately, because of NCAA violations by an alumnus La Salle had been barred from the NCAA Tournament before the season. Regardless, the Explorers had a 37-13 record during his two-year stint as coach. To this day the La Salle University Explorers play at the Tom Gola Arena, also known as The Tom or The Gola.

As if Gola hadn't done enough he also got into politics. He was elected to the Pennsylvania State House in 1968. As a Republican, he  represented the 170th District in Northeast Philadelphia. He was the first person to represent the newly created district. However, he didn't finish his first term in the House because he was elected as the Philadelphia City Controller in 1969. That was his last position in government, however, as he was defeated several times in attempts at re-election and in running for Mayor.
 
Gola died January 26, 2013 at St. Joseph's Manor in Meadowbrook, Philadelphia. He was survived by his wife, Caroline, and their son. NBA.com was able to capture some wonderful quotes by some of the people Gola affected during his lifetime.

"I am deeply saddened to hear the news about the passing of Tom Gola, a former teammate and one of the true gentlemen of the game," Warriors teammate Al Attles said in a statement Sunday night. "He was a Hall of Fame player, but an even better person. His nickname was `Saint' and for good reason. He had a huge impact on the Warriors' early success in Philadelphia and, of course, was part of the original team that moved West to San Francisco in 1962. My sympathy goes out to his entire family. He will be missed."

"Tom was a Philadelphia icon whose name is synonymous with basketball," said Brother Michael J. McGinniss, La Salle's president. "His legacy will live on at La Salle forever and in the university's Tom Gola Arena."

"When I was growing up, you whispered the name Tom Gola, because he was like a saint," late Warriors teammate Wilt Chamberlain once said.
One thing for sure, Gola might not have the recognition of an Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Wilt Chamberlain but by all accounts he should. This man not only had a wonderful high school, college and professional basketball career. He also served his country overseas and made a difference as a politician. 
 
Tom Gola was one of a kind. He's the kind of man that doesn't come around too often. He deserves to be recognized for the life he lived. Rest in peace Mr. Gola.
 
Tags: Basketball, La Salle, NBA, New York, New York Knicks, Philadelphia Warriors, Tom Gola

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