Before the Spectrum, before Princess Grace, even before Frankie Avalon and Fabian and the other dreamy rockers came out of the south side with their peg pants and their white shoes, Philadelphia had Tom Gola. The early '50s was the chosen time for the demigods of sport in that city. There was Chuck Bednarik, old concrete Charlie, who had come down from the steel mills of Bethlehem to become a star at Penn and to go both ways for the Eagles. There was Robin Roberts, off a Midwestern farm and the Michigan State campus, to fire nothing but strikes and win 20 every year for the Whiz Kid Phillies. But not they, not anyone, ever touched the legend of Tom Gola.
Tom Gola of La Salle is Philadelphia's one and only genuine folk hero partly because he is the city's own. He grew up, the son of a cop, 20 blocks from his school. He enrolled there in 1951, and for four years excelled on the basketball court with the grace, flair and sheer all-round excellence that to this day are the standards by which all others are judged. While Gola was at La Salle the Explorers won 102 games, finished first in the NIT and first in the NCAA, then second in the NCAA. No Philadelphian can ever forget the sound of the public-address system at Convention Hall whenever Tom Gola scored another deuce. "Golagoal, Golagoal, Golagoal," it would scream. What man was on an NCAA and NIT and an NBA championship team? "Arnie Ferrin of Utah and the Minneapolis Lakers and me," says Tom Gola. "How about that?"
Last Saturday night the sandy crew cut was gone, replaced by waves with the part on the right and some streaks of gray. The famous black sleeves of the old uniform were also gone, changed to a pinstripe suit and handsome cravat. The man is a licensed real-estate agent now, an insurance salesman and the distinguished Representative in the state legislature of the 170th District of Pennsylvania (northeast Philadelphia). But he is once again Gola of La Salle—in his first season as coach.
Last week, as easily as he introduced a resolution that would "investigate rumors of irregularities and conflicts of interest" in the city's housing and redevelopment authorities, Tom Gola presented for national consideration his La Salle basketball team. It is not only his first team but, with a record of 18-1, the first team in the East, too. In what surely must have been Philadelphia's biggest college game in years, La Salle's devastating run-rabbit-run attack, as in the days of old, turned back Villanova 74-67.
February 17, 1969
However loaded with excitement, the week was only an average one for Representative Gola. Since Jan. 7, the day he began his second term, the state legislature has met each Monday and Tuesday, a circumstance that normally forces Gola to be absent from Monday practice. On that first day of the week he drives 100 miles to Harrisburg to wait upon the Republican caucus and go over the calendar. He stays overnight in the capital, attends a usually short session on Tuesday, then drives back to Philadelphia in time to meet with his team. Last Wednesday morning he attended to his insurance business in the Philadelphia suburb of Fort Washington before driving another two hours to Easton, where that night La Salle ran to an easy victory over Lafayette. The next day Gola met with more business associates and attended a basketball luncheon and a political dinner before fulfilling still another appointment with the ever-fawning press. He did not get home to his wife and 9-year-old son until 2 o'clock the next morning. Friday held much of the same routine, and on Saturday, in addition to the big game, Gola was to experience his first taste of the rite that is the eternal bane of all coaches: the entertainment of visiting high school players.
"I don't know how he does it, physically," says Curt Fromal, the assistant coach. "His schedule is inhuman. It isn't the many jobs so much as it is the people who want to see him. Everybody wants something from Tom."
"Weekends are for the family, so I have to skip those 9-to-12 Communion breakfasts," laughs Gola. "But I knew what I was getting into. I had to try this. La Salle was going downhill. Organization had broken down. I wanted to make basketball important again."
La Salle basketball had come upon difficult times. Despite a 20-8 record and an NCAA bid last season, the team still had the look of a group of waifs. A trio of talented seniors—Larry Cannon, Bernie Williams and Stan Wlodarczyk—had met at a series of high school all-star games, and with a fourth man, 6'9" Isaiah King, were recruited to La Salle in 1965 by Bob Walters with the prospect of challenging for the national title for three years. But before the season even opened, Walters retired because of ulcers. King flunked out of school during his freshman year and never returned. The new coach, Joe Heyer, a freshly scrubbed 27-year-old who once had to be okayed by a student in order to be served a beer, was not prepared for the job. Recognizing his inexperience and inability to handle the pressure, he resigned after his second year.
Next to come was Jim Harding, a whip and sword guy who spread terror with his manner and who in past times, it is said, was regularly hung in effigy at another school by his own players. He resigned after one year to coach in the pros. That's when Gola came back on the scene, but it was not much of a scene. In October the school was slapped with a two-year NCAA probation from postseason play because of fostering illegal campus jobs and threatening to dispossess scholarship players of their scholarships. The NCAA has since made the latter indiscretion legal, not that that has deducted from the school's loss.
"I could have accepted a one-year probation willingly," Gola says. "But I don't agree with two. Everyone concerned with the infractions is gone, and here are these innocent kids with only one place to go. We play our last game at West Chester."
The La Salle players are not exactly resigned to their fate. "If we had been just an average team it wouldn't have meant so much," says Cannon. "But we knew from the start we were better than that. The first year I thought Heyer could have taken advantage of his age, but he was self-conscious with us and worried about getting too close. In airports he would go to the extreme and stand on the other side of the terminal by himself, just to keep away from us.
"I always defended Harding because he was so devoted," Cannon says. "But he would frighten most of the guys. Roland Taylor would be shaking half the time he played, worried about making a mistake. Everyone was dissatisfied then, and we were happy to see Harding go. Coach Gola came and we were up, and then the probation came and we were down. It was like an assassination."
"After the probation," Bernie Williams says, "Coach told us we could lie down and die or play it tough. We decided right then we would like to leave some people wondering what we could have done."
Formerly, La Salle teams had themselves as well as their coaches to blame. For the most part they were all shooters who needed the ball. The ball, of course, was not readily available. The key La Salle play, so the story goes, was to pass inbounds off a teammate's knee, grab the ball back and tommy-gun it up for two. And the defense? Local players used to fight each other to match up against the La Salle defense.
For Gola, raised on the teachings of Ken Loeffler, who insisted on balance and teamwork, and an outstanding defenseman for the New York Knickerbockers, all this was painful.
"When I took the job defense was No. 1," says Gola. "They had the talent to score—hell. Cannon and Williams are sure bets in the pros—but a guy like Cannon had never played defense in his life. He was a problem at first. I told him if he was a sophomore he'd never play for me. I wouldn't take the stuff he was handing out. But I knew what these kids had been through."
"He is a hard man to get close to," says Cannon, "and I didn't think he was handling us the right way. But we have been winning, so he is right."
With the addition of 6'7" Ken Durrett, a mobile sophomore who is leading the team in scoring and rebounds, La Salle has been honed by Gola into a team of remarkable speed, quickness and symmetry. Now the Explorers play strictly a "man" defense, and they do it with verve. Cannon and Williams are improved defensively. Wlodarczyk, 6'6", guards the opposition's best big man, while Taylor has become the top defensive guard in the East.
On offense, with Cannon and Williams giving as well as taking the ball now, La Salle is more effective. To provide scoring chances for all, Gola has installed the old weave, and La Salle sets up only when faced by a zone. But the fast break, started by Durrett's moves off the board, is the trump card. La Salle runs and runs some more, probably better than any Eastern team since the days of Guy Rodgers and Hal Lear at Temple. "Oh, does La Salle run," says one Philadelphia man. "I get wind-burn every time I see La Salle run."
Discipline and the importance of the Explorer bench were evident early in the season on La Salle's trip to Niagara. Gola had suspended Cannon for missing the team bus (his third rule violation of the year) and without Cannon or Taylor, who had the flu, La Salle missed its first 12 shots and fell behind 10-0. The Explorers trailed by nine at half-time, then came on to win 88-73 as Fran Dunphy held Calvin Murphy down and Ed Szczesny, another reserve, totaled 18 points and 14 rebounds. Going into the Villanova game, La Salle's only loss was to South Carolina in the finals of the Quaker City Holiday Tournament.
Faced with a much more demanding schedule, Villanova, 15 miles up the Main Line, had played about as well as expected; the Wildcats were coming off probably their biggest victory yet, an 83-78 overtime win at home against St. John's just four nights earlier. Always a leader in defensive strategy, this year Coach Jack Kraft finally had some offensive mortars, too. The Wildcats were scoring almost 10 points more a game than last season, mostly because of Howard (Bud, Ed, Willie, Geezer—pick one) Porter, a precocious 6'8" rookie forward who was averaging 23 points and 13 rebounds a game. Porter got his many names in preseason notices, none correct, and the Villanova publicity people are not doing much to help clarify matters. Because Porter wanders way out for his shot, which is distinguished by a spectacular arc, now they are trying to nickname him Howard (Rainbow) Porter.
Senior Johnny Jones, the Wildcats' other forward, is just 6'4". But he was born on the baseline and shoots his shots on the inside, with his right elbow pointing due west from his body and the ball behind his ears. Rainbow Porter and Due West Jones, both up to Philly from the Florida Everglades, provide the Wildcats with a powerful, albeit unbalanced, scoring attack.
Villanova had lost twice this season: to North Carolina in a New York Holiday Festival game refereed with no skill and much buffoonery, and to Penn in a deep freeze, 32-30. Four nights before the Penn contest, however, Kraft had his most anxious moments in a game against St. Joseph's. Struggling for a loose ball, Porter unleashed an elbow that caught teammate Jones flush in the face, shattering his glasses and sending him to the hospital, where 10 switches were needed to close the cuts beneath his eye. Partially stunned by what he had done to Jones, Porter scored 36 points against St. Joe, and on Friday night Frank Gillen, the Villanova leader, was saying he might do the same against La Salle. "Porter will keep them off the fast break," he said. "If we hit the offensive boards and stop them from running, it's all over."
On Saturday in the Palestra the battle for Philadelphia began as expected, with La Salle trying to run away and hide before the Wildcats could set up their zone. Williams and Wlodarczyk got into foul trouble early, but La Salle still took a 23-17 lead midway through the first half when Williams scored eight straight points. Regrouping after Gillen had left the game with an injured knee, the Wildcats scored nine straight points as Jones broke free to convert a couple of loose balls. The Explorers looked confused on defense for a while until they began to run again. Two fast breaks gave them a 34-33 lead at halftime.
With Gillen back in and with Porter becoming effective as more La Salle men fouled, Villanova took the lead 42-38 with 15:30 left in the game. But here Gola switched the man so long scorned, Larry Cannon, onto Jones. It was an important gesture. Jones, when it counted, was to score only one basket off Cannon the rest of the way.
La Salle got moving on the break again to score 10 points and go to a 48-42 advantage, which it held for six minutes until Porter brought Villanova back all by himself, tallying 10 straight points in one stretch. Villanova trailed by just two, 63-61, with 3:45 left in the game.
The Wildcat zone came out higher now to get the ball, but La Salle's Ed Szczesny, who had replaced Wlodarczyk, rebounded for two points. Jones then missed the first of a crucial one-and-one foul opportunity, and when La Salle brought the ball down again Williams flashed a pass underneath to Durrett, who leaped high to stuff the ball and (almost) Jones, who had fouled him, into the basket. The sophomore finished the three-pointer for a 68-61 margin and the Wildcats never got closer.
Villanova is still a force to be reckoned with in the NCAA tournament, but the Explorers own Philadelphia and Cannon cut the net to prove it. "Still they haven't won anything," a man said of La Salle. Cannon grudgingly agreed. "I wish Villanova well," he said. "But we could have gone all the way. I know it now." Right then it seemed almost a tragedy that Tom Gola and the poor little quick kids of La Salle have no place to go but West Chester.