Loss of a Philly icon

A loc­al le­gend: Tom Gola, a le­gendary play­er and coach at La Salle Uni­versity, has been in­duc­ted in­to nu­mer­ous halls of fames and was in­duc­ted in­to the in­aug­ur­al class of the At­lantic 10 Con­fer­ence Men’s Bas­ket­ball Le­gends. He died on Sunday at the age of 81. TIMES FILE PHOTO

People are re­mem­ber­ing Tom Gola as the con­sum­mate Phil­adelphi­an, nev­er for­get­ting his roots as he en­joyed suc­cess­ful ca­reers in play­ing and coach­ing bas­ket­ball, serving in pub­lic of­fice and work­ing in the busi­ness world.

Gola, 81, died on Sunday. He had faced nu­mer­ous health crises since a 2003 fall. He and his wife, Car­oline, lived on Kings Oak Road in Pine Val­ley, al­though he had spent the last sev­er­al years at St. Joseph’s Man­or in Mead­ow­brook.

“Tom was a Phil­adelphia icon whose name is syn­onym­ous with bas­ket­ball,” said Broth­er Mi­chael J. Mc­Gin­n­iss, pres­id­ent of La Salle Uni­versity, where Gola played and coached. “His leg­acy will live on at La Salle forever and in the uni­versity’s Tom Gola Arena. Tom was a great man who, in true Las­al­li­an spir­it, did great things for the uni­versity and for oth­ers. La Salle Uni­versity was very lucky to have him as part of our fam­ily. We wish him etern­al peace.”

Gola is sur­vived by his wife; son, Thomas; sis­ters, Wanda, Joan, Cath­er­ine and Clare; broth­ers, John and Paul; and grand­chil­dren, Kristin and Mor­gan.

A fu­ner­al Mass will be offered on Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. Al­bert the Great Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church, at 212 Welsh Road in Hunt­ing­don Val­ley. Buri­al will be private. In lieu of flowers, dona­tions in his memory can be made to St. Joseph’s Man­or, 1616 Hunt­ing­don Pike, Mead­ow­brook, PA 19046.

Gola grew up near 3rd Street and Lind­ley Av­en­ue in Ol­ney. He starred for the In­carn­a­tion of Our Lord CYO bas­ket­ball team, then went on to La Salle High School, back when it was loc­ated in the city.

In his ju­ni­or year at La Salle High, his team won the city cham­pi­on­ship by beat­ing Over­brook.

Next, he went on to play at La Salle Col­lege, where he was a three-time All-Amer­ic­an. In 1952, the 6-foot-6 guard/for­ward was the Co-Most Valu­able Play­er as the Ex­plorers de­feated Dayton to win the NIT, which at the time was the big post­season col­lege bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment.

In 1954, he was named Out­stand­ing Play­er as La Salle de­feated Brad­ley for the NCAA title.

In his col­lege ca­reer, he av­er­aged 20.9 points and 18.7 re­bounds per game. He holds the NCAA re­cord for most re­bounds with 2,201.

“Tom Gola was a Phil­adelphia icon and a treas­ure for La Salle,” said La Salle ath­let­ic dir­ect­or Tom Bren­nan. “His con­tri­bu­tions as a play­er and coach provided La Salle with a true na­tion­al pro­file. Tom touched the lives of so many and will be re­membered with great fond­ness. Tom and also his wife Car­oline have meant so much to the La Salle com­munity.”

After his col­lege days, he played in the NBA. As a rook­ie in 1956, he won a cham­pi­on­ship with the old Phil­adelphia War­ri­ors. He played in five all-star games in a 10-year ca­reer be­fore re­tir­ing at age 33 in 1966 as a mem­ber of the New York Knicks.

Later in 1966, he was elec­ted as a mem­ber of the Pennsylvania House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives. A Re­pub­lic­an, he lived on Rennard Street in Somer­ton. He was re-elec­ted in 1968.

While serving as a state rep­res­ent­at­ive, he coached La Salle for two sea­sons. His 1969 team was 23-1 and ranked second in the na­tion be­hind power­ful UCLA. The Ex­plorers, though, were in­eligible for post­season play be­cause of rules vi­ol­a­tions com­mit­ted be­fore Gola ar­rived as coach.

“Tom Gola is known by all as a truly great play­er and coach, but it was the man that was most cher­ished at La Salle,” said La Salle’s cur­rent coach, John Gi­an­nini. “Every per­son con­nec­ted with La Salle bas­ket­ball for over a 60-year span has held his friend­ship and lead­er­ship as a bless­ing they could al­ways count on. Our com­munity will forever hold the Gola name as syn­onym­ous with great­ness.”

In 1969, Gola, who stud­ied ac­count­ing in col­lege, ran for city con­trol­ler and eas­ily de­feated Demo­crat Charles Per­uto, the well-known at­tor­ney who died last month.

In 1973, Gola lost a re-elec­tion bid to Demo­crat Bill Klenk.

“Tom’s com­mit­ment to pub­lic ser­vice and to be­ing a lead­er with­in his com­munity pos­it­ively in­flu­enced the lives of many Phil­adelphi­ans,” said Alan Butkovitz, the cur­rent con­trol­ler. “Wheth­er it was a team lead­er on the bas­ket­ball court or in an elec­ted of­fice, Tom had class and ex­hib­ited qual­it­ies so many of us strive to emu­late.”

In 1980, Gola was act­ive in Ron­ald Re­agan’s suc­cess­ful pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. After Re­agan took of­fice, he named Gola as a re­gion­al ad­min­is­trat­or for the De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment.

Gola ran in the 1983 Re­pub­lic­an primary for may­or, but fin­ished third be­hind win­ner John Egan and run­ner-up Charlie Dougherty.

After the end of his polit­ic­al ca­reer, he be­came a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man. He was ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of Val­ley Forge In­vest­ment Corp. and on the board of Third Fed­er­al Bank.

His fa­vor­ite hobby was golf, and he could be found on the links six days a week. He also en­joyed spend­ing the winter months in Flor­ida.

In Ju­ly 2003, he and his wife were out to din­ner with fam­ily at a Blue Bell res­taur­ant when he lost his bal­ance, fell back­ward and hit his head on a curb. He was in a coma for a time, but re­covered, al­though he later faced the chal­lenges of seizures, colon can­cer and a gastrointest­in­al bleed. Dam­age to his brain caused some speech dif­fi­culty, and he walked with a cane and later got around in a wheel­chair. Gola is in nu­mer­ous halls of fame: North­east Phil­adelphia; the Na­i­s­mith Na­tion­al Bas­ket­ball; Arch­diocese CYO; Pol­ish; Madis­on Square Garden; Phil­adelphia Sports; and Big Five.

Last year, in a ce­re­mony at the Barclays Cen­ter in Brook­lyn, he was in­duc­ted in­to the in­aug­ur­al class of the At­lantic 10 Con­fer­ence Men’s Bas­ket­ball Le­gends.

La Salle named its gym­nas­i­um the Tom Gola Arena in 1998. His No. 15 jer­sey hangs from the rafters. ••

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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