John Wooden might have said it best. The legendary former UCLA coach once described Thomas Joseph Gola as the "greatest all-round basketball player" he had ever seen. That seems an apt characterization for a player who won championships at every level of the sport before pursuing a coaching and political career. The basketball world lost a true legend when Gola died on Sunday just outside Philadelphia. He was 81.
Gola set a standard for excellence that may never be surpassed. Standing at just 6-foot-6, he played much bigger than his frame would suggest, still holding the NCAA record for career rebounds with 2,201; only one other player (George Washington's Joe Holup) has even eclipsed the 2,000-rebound plateau. Gola dominated the competition during his four-year career at La Salle, averaging 20.9 points and 19.0 rebounds per game over 121 games with the Explorers. A three-time All-American, Gola led La Salle to the 1952 NIT title, the 1954 NCAA championship (and won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award), and an NCAA runner-up placement in 1955. He was also the Helms Foundation National Player of the Year in 1954 and the UPI National Player of the Year in 1955.
Not just a rebounder, Gola amassed 2,462 points at La Salle, making him one of just two players in NCAA history — along with Holup — to top 2,000 in both points and rebounds. (For a modern comparison, Creighton All-American Doug McDermott has tallied 2,702 points and 988 rebounds in his 130 career games.) La Salle Athletic Director Tom Brennan said in a statement: "Tom Gola was a Philadelphia icon and a treasure for La Salle. His contributions as a player and coach provided La Salle with a true national profile. Tom's athletic accomplishments and athletic career were second to none." The university honored him in 1998 by naming its gymnasium after him, and the Explorers' program has continued the proud tradition he started by crashing the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen just one year ago.
After flourishing at the collegiate level, Gola carried that success over to the NBA. He played an integral role in leading the Philadelphia Warriors to the NBA title in 1956, averaging 10.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game as a rookie. He went on to play nine more seasons in the NBA, earning All-Star recognition five times in a row from 1960-64. During a decorated career with the Warriors and the New York Knicks, Gola averaged 11.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, numbers that ultimately earned him enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of of Fame in 1976.
A local folk hero for his entire life, Gola asked management to trade him to the Knicks when the Warriors franchise moved to San Francisco in 1962 so he could stay close to home. Fellow Philadelphian Wilt Chamberlain -- perhaps the greatest center in the history of the game -- said that he and others would whisper Gola's name as youngsters coming up in the city's hoops scene, "because he was like a saint." After retiring from his professional career in 1966, Gola returned to his alma mater as a head coach two years later, leading La Salle to a 23-1 record and a No. 2 national ranking during the 1968-69 season. Although some believe that team may have been the best Philadelphia college team of all-time, the Explorers were ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA violations from a previous coach. Gola returned for one more season, a 14-12 campaign, before leaving the coaching business for good. He also dabbled in politics for a bit and was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1966 before becoming the Philadelphia City Controller in 1970, a position he held until 1974.
In an article published on the Gola phenomenon in December 1954, Sports Illustrated's Milton Gross wrote that the City of Brotherly Love could not better describe how Philadelphia felt about its native basketball son. Many local greats have come and gone from Philly over the past 60 years, but to those in the area of a certain age, the affable and talented Gola has never left their hearts and minds. His time on this earth may now be gone, but at least in southeastern Pennsylvania, his legend will live on forever.
More from Rush the Court: