Tom Gola, a Philadelphia-born athlete once described by the late UCLA coach John Wooden as "the greatest all-around basketball player" he had ever seen, died Sunday at a care facility in Meadowbrook, Pa. He was 81.
Gola had been convalescing since injuring his head in a 2003 fall from a Philadelphia curb. His wife Caroline confirmed his death to the Philadelphia Daily News.
The square-jawed son of a Philadelphia policeman, Gola won championships at every level of basketball, coached a college team many consider to be the best in Philadelphia's history, and was elected to state and citywide offices.
As a player over his four years at La Salle College, Gola paced a team that won 102 of 121 games. He was college player of the year in 1955, and the first to be named a first-team All-American four consecutive seasons. He also grabbed 2,201 rebounds, an NCAA career record that has stood for more than half a century.
In his rookie season with the hometown Warriors, he helped Philadelphia win the 1956 NBA championship. He was a five-time NBA all-star, retiring as a New York Knick in 1966.
Gola coached two seasons at his alma mater, guiding the Explorers to a No. 2 national ranking in 1968-69.
A Republican, he was elected to the state Legislature in 1966. Three years later, he won his bid to be Philadelphia's city controller but was defeated for reelection in 1973.
He retreated to his suburban 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 who in the 1950s dominated city basketball. 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 once said, "you whispered the name Tom Gola. He was like a saint."
Gola was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976.
Born Jan. 13, 1933, he was 6 feet tall before he left elementary school. In high school, he was courted by more than 60 colleges. Army even promised to waive its long-standing 6-4 height restriction — Gola was 6-6 — if he would go to West Point.
He chose La Salle — where New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick, after watching him as a freshman, pronounced him ready for the NBA.
After graduating, he joined the Philadelphia Warriors — a team that had finished last in the Eastern Conference the previous season.
"It was something you'd do naturally," Gola once said. "There was really no work to it. In those days, you would play for nothing. The money wasn't the big thing."
With Gola as their rookie point guard, the Warriors won the NBA championship.
When the Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1962, Gola asked to be traded so he could remain closer to home. He spent his last four NBA seasons with the Knicks.
In 1968, while still in the Legislature, Gola agreed to coach at his alma mater. He resigned when he won the controller's seat.
In 1998, the school refurbished its arena and renamed it for its most famous alumnus.
"I don't regret anything," Gola said at the time. "Your body parts wear out, and you move on to something else. That's life."
The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News contributed to this report.