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. ••