PHILADELPHIA — Tom Gola, a giant from Philadelphia basketball’s greatest generation who parlayed his fame as perhaps the most honored player in college history into a career in the NBA, politics and business, died Sunday at age 81 at St. Joseph’s Manor in Meadowbrook.

Gola had been convalescing ever since he suffered a head injury in a fall from a Philadelphia curb on July 25, 2003.

The son of a Philadelphia policeman, Gola had led a life so charmed it seemed to have been scripted for a fictional hero.

He won championships at every level from elementary school to the NBA, coached a college team many consider to be the best in Big Five history, was elected to state and citywide offices as well as the basketball Hall of Fame, became a successful businessman, and saw his alma mater’s arena named in his honor.

Gola transformed La Salle College with astounding success.

With Gola as their do-everything star, the Explorers won the 1952 National Invitation Tournament title and 1954 NCAA titles and, in his senior season of 1955, were NCAA runners-up. In his four years there, La Salle won 102 of 121 games.


He was the MVP in those NCAA and NIT titles, the college player of the year in 1955, and the first player to be named a first-team all-American four consecutive seasons.

Then, in his rookie season with the hometown Warriors, who had made him a territorial pick, Gola helped Philadelphia win the 1956 NBA championship.

He was a five-time NBA all-star, but Gola became primarily a defensive specialist during his 10 pro seasons. He averaged 11 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists a game before retiring as a New York Knick in 1966.

In 1969, he ran for city controller on a Republican ticket that included district attorney candidate Arlen Specter. Both men won by substantial margins in a heavily Democratic city.

After being defeated in a reelection bid in 1973, Gola returned to the political arena a decade later when he sought the Republican nomination for mayor. But in one of the most stinging defeats in a life that knew few, he finished last in a three-man field.

He then retreated to his Bucks County insurance agency, occasionally dabbling in real estate and other business ventures.


Along with Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin and Guy Rodgers, Gola was one of a pantheon of future Hall of Famers from Philadelphia who in the 1950s dominated city basketball at every level. In fact, Chamberlain, whom many still consider to be the greatest player of all time, once said Gola belonged at the top of that list.

“When I was growing up,” Chamberlain, an Overbrook schoolboy when Gola starred at La Salle, once said, “you whispered the name Tom Gola. He was like a saint.”

At 6-foot-6, Gola was a rarity for his era – a versatile superstar who was capable of playing any position. He excelled without flash or flamboyance. Sonny Hill, another Philadelphia hoops legend, compared him to Magic Johnson.

In 1998, the La Salle College refurbished its arena and renamed it for Gola.

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