La Salle legend Tom Gola passed away on Sunday at the age of 81. Gola helped lead the Explorers to unprecedented heights during his playing days. He was named MVP of the 1952 NIT after beating Dayton in the title game and MOP of the 1954 NCAA tourney after beating Bradley in the title game. In 1955 he was named national POY as La Salle tried to become the third team to ever win consecutive titles, but they lost the title game to Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons that year. Gola graduated with 2201 career rebounds, which remains an NCAA record that will probably never be broken. After being drafted by the Philadlephia Warriors in 1955, he promptly helped his hometown team win the 1956 NBA title over the Fort Wayne Pistons. After returning to his alma mater to become head coach, he led the Explorers to a 23-1 record in his very first year in 1969. Jon Teitel sat down with Gola’s longtime friend and former teammate Frank Blatcher to reflect on the life of this Hall of Famer.
In the magical 1954 NCAA tourney Gola scored 28 points and found Fran O’Malley open for a layup at the end of regulation in a two point OT win over Fordham. How was he able to balance his scoring with his passing? He had fantastic peripheral vision and an innate ability to find the open man. Fordham took the lead with only a few seconds left in regulation so Coach Ken Loeffler called a timeout as soon as we inbounded the ball, which was a brilliant play that allowed us to move the ball up to halfcourt. O’Malley’s man left him and Gola found him open for the game-tying basket: it was an unbelievable play that was not designed in advance.
He scored 19 points and was named tourney MOP in a win over Bradley to win the title, becoming the only player to ever be named both NCAA MOP and NIT MVP. How was he able to play his best when it mattered the most? He got in foul trouble and had four fouls by the third quarter. His replacement John Yodasnukis fouled out in about 10 minutes, so when Gola came back in we switched to a 2-1-2 zone in order to protect him. We were able to break the game open in the fourth quarter before he ended up fouling out.
In the 1955 NCAA tourney he scored 23 points in a three point win over Iowa, what is the key to winning close games in March? Iowa had two magnificent player in Bill Logan and Carl “Sugar” Cain that lost to USF the following year. Gola was able to step up in big games and just take over the final few minutes.
He scored 16 points in a loss to San Francisco in the title game (Bill Russell had 23 points/25 rebounds). Did he consider that tourney run to be a success (due to making the title game) or a failure (due to losing the final game of his college career after winning his nine previous tourney games)? We wanted to win it all, so in that regard it was a failure. San Francisco came out of the West so we did not know a lot about KC Jones. Jones rarely scored in double-digits but had 23 points against us. That game is a sore point in my own life, as I did not get into the game until the final quarter. We also had not realized how intimidating Russell would be, but we missed a lot of shots near the basket.
He was two-time national POY and still holds the NCAA record with 2201 career rebounds despite being only 6’6″. He is the only NCAA player ever with 2200+ REB and 2200+ points (2462), and was the first four-time All-American of the modern era: do you consider him to be 1 of the best players in college basketball history? I recently stated that he was the greatest college player of all time: winning the NIT and being named MVP as a freshman, then being named NCAA MOP as a junior. Hall of Famer Paul Arizin (our mutual friend) also agreed that Tommy was the best all-around player.
In 1955 he was a territorial draft pick of the Philadelphia Warriors. How did he like having seven of his 10 teammates who were fellow Philly-area college players (two others from La Salle, three from Villanova, and one each from Penn/King’s College)? It was great: not only were they teammates but they were friends.
In Game 5 of the 1956 Finals he scored 16 points in a 10-point win over Ft. Wayne to win the title as a rookie. Did it just reach a point where he expected to win a title every single year!? I think there was an aura about him, but he also joined a pretty damn good team and could play defense and find the open man. He was just another part of the puzzle.
In the 1960 Eastern Division Finals he scored 10 points in a two point loss to eventual champion Boston in the decisive Game 6. How many titles do you think he would have won if he did not have to keep facing those legendary Celtics teams? A lot: it was just a situation with a group of people together at one time who were fantastic. Russell and Jones were a “pox on your house” when playing together, both in college and the pros. The 76ers would have dominated the 1960s if not for the Celtics.
On March 2, 1962 his teammate Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a win over the Knicks. Did Gola feel bad about not playing in that legendary game? No: the psychology in that game was to be unselfish and get the ball to Wilt.
In Game 7 of the 1962 Eastern Division Finals he scored 16 points but Sam Jones made the series-winning shot with two seconds left in a two point win by eventual champion Boston. Where does that rank among the most devastating losses of his career? I am unsure, but it had to be up there.
He is one of only two players to win an NCAA, NIT, and NBA title (Arnie Ferrin is the other). Do you think we will ever see a 3rd member of that exclusive club? The NIT was a big deal early on but it changed in 1953 with conference champs going to the NCAA tourney, and the NIT became a second-rate tourney.
In 1968 he was elected to the Pennsylvania State House as the first-ever representative of the newly-created 170th District. Why did he decide to get into politics, and how did he like it? I think he liked politics: his running mate was future US Senator Arlen Specter!
In 1968 he returned to his alma mater as coach and led the Explorers to 23-1 record (with the only blemish being athee point loss to South Carolina). What made him such a good coach? He was a winner and his attitude was that of a “regular guy” as opposed to a hot shot. Loeffler was a great role model for both Gola and Jim Phelan, who became one of the most successful coaches in NCAA history.
In 1976 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. When people look back on his career, how do you think he should be remembered the most? He should be remembered as a good man and a great team player. He was the kind of player who would always get you the ball if you were open. He was inspirational, unselfish, and always one of the guys. I knew him pretty well off the court as well and he was a very good guy.