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La Salle Great Tom Gola Dies at 81

La Salle great Tom Gola died at age 81 after a long battle with the effects of a fall more than 10 years ago. He defined basketball in Philadelphia and the country in the 1950s, and coached one of the greatest teams in Big Five history.

Tom Gola won an NIT title, an NCAA Championship and an NBA title with the Philadelphia Warriors
Tom Gola won an NIT title, an NCAA Championship and an NBA title with the Philadelphia Warriors
La Salle Athletics

La Salle takes the floor at Tom Gola Arena for a reason. The man whose name adorns that arena is the essence of Explorer basketball, from his playing days to when he coached one of the most successful teams to stalk the Philadelphia hardwood.

Tom Gola died Sunday, according to and confirmed by his wife Caroline. He was 81 years old.

Gola had been battling the effects of an accident he had more than 10 years ago, and never fully recovered from a fall that left him in a coma.

He burst onto the national scene during the 1951-52 season, the first of his four straight All-American selections. He would lead the Explorers to a 25-7 record and an NIT Championship. He was named the Co-MVP of the tournament.

This was all foreshadowing for the Explorers who two years later would go 26-4 and win the NCAA Tournament title with a 92-76 victory over Bradley. Gola, who scored 114 points during the five games, was again named the Tournament MVP and was a consensus All-American for the second straight year. He averaged 23.0 points and 23.0 rebounds per game during the season, one of the best single-season performances in NCAA history.

As a senior the Explorers would again reach the NCAA Tournament. They worked their way to the title game but ran into a guy named Bill Russell and the San Francisco Dons. They would lose 77-63 in the finals, and wouldn't make the NCAA Tournament again for 13 years.

Gola finished his college career with three consensus All-American picks, scored 2,461 points and still holds the NCAA record with 2,201 rebounds. And he was just 6-6. Yes, the man that holds the NCAA record for rebounds was and would be a really tall shooting guard in today's game.

While at La Salle, the Explorers went 102-19.

He was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors and would help them to the 1956 NBA Championship. Gola played 12 years in the league for the Warriors in both Philly and San Francisco, and then the New York Knicks. He average 11.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists during that time.

Gola went back to La Salle following his NBA career, and made his mark with one of the most terrifying teams to ever play in Philadelphia. The sad part is that no one will ever know what that team was capable of winning.

The 1968-69 La Salle Explorers went 23-1, with the only blemish coming in a three-point loss to South Carolina in the Quaker City Tournament at the Palestra. Led by another La Salle great, Ken Durrett, the team would roll through the regular season without a care. Only three teams other than the Gamecocks would come within 10 points of the Explorers all season: Western Kentucky (7 points), then No. 8 Villanova (7 points), and Detroit (2 points).

But that was where the story ended for the team. Before the season, the team had been banned from postseason play because some of the players had been offered "no-show" jobs by an alum.

A guy named Lew Alcindor would lead UCLA to its 5th straight NCAA title that season.

Gola would coach one more season, going 14-12 in the first chair, and finishing with a 37-13 record overall.

He was drawn away from basketball by politics where he would first serve as the original representative of the 170th district in the Pennsylvania State House. He would leave that post less than a year later when he was elected Philadelphia City Controller, a post he would hold for just a single term.

He attempted to run for mayor in Phildelphia in 1983, but would come in third in the primary.

But here was a man that synonymous with basketball in Phildelphia in the 50s and 60s. He was elected to the La Salle Hall of Athletes in 1961, the NBA Hall of Fame in 1976 and the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 1986. He was No. 17 on the ESPN countdown of the greatest college basketball players of all time.

For some reason, he was not elected to the NCAA's 75th anniversary team, despite his 20.9 points and 18.7 rebounds per game, multiple awards, and two championships over his career.

A little piece of Philadelphia basketball is gone. But that name will still live on the arena at La Salle, a reminder of one of the greatest players and coaches to ever take to the game of basketball.