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Tom Gola, Hall of Fame basketball player who starred at La Salle and in the NBA, dies at 81

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PHILADELPHIA - Tom Gola, the Hall of Famer who led La Salle to the 1954 NCAA title, still holds the Division I record for career rebounds and helped the Philadelphia Warriors win the 1956 NBA championship, died Sunday. He was 81.

Gola's wife, Caroline, said he died at St. Joseph's Manor in Meadowbrook. Gola was seriously injured in 2003 after he fell and hit his head on a curb and was in a coma for several days.

Gola also led La Salle to the 1952 NIT title and a runner-up finish in the 1955 NCAA tournament. He set the NCAA Division I record for career rebounds with 2,201 and scored 2,461 points. He and former George Washington player Joe Holup are the only players in NCAA Division I history to top 2,000 in both points and rebounds.

Gola averaged 11.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in 10 NBA seasons with Philadelphia/San Francisco and New York.

"I am deeply saddened to hear the news about the passing of Tom Gola, a former teammate and one of the true gentlemen of the game," Warriors teammate Al Attles said in a statement Sunday night. "He was a Hall of Fame player, but an even better person. His nickname was 'Saint' and for good reason. He had a huge impact on the Warriors' early success in Philadelphia and, of course, was part of the original team that moved West to San Francisco in 1962. My sympathy goes out to his entire family. He will be missed."

Gola later coached at La Salle, where the arena is named after him.

"Tom was a Philadelphia icon whose name is synonymous with basketball," said Brother Michael J. McGinniss, La Salle's prsident. "His legacy will live on at La Salle forever and in the university's Tom Gola Arena."

A Philadelphia folk hero whose legions of fans screamed "Go, Gola, Go!" whenever he touched the ball, was one of only two players to win an NIT, NCAA and NBA championships.

"When I was growing up, you whispered the name Tom Gola, because he was like a saint," late Warriors teammate Wilt Chamberlain once said.

Late UCLA coach John Wooden called Gola the "greatest all-round basketball player" ever.

Part of his popularity stemmed from the fact that Gola, the eldest son of a Philadelphia policeman, chose to play at a hometown college despite receiving more than 50 scholarship offers.

A three-time All-American, the 6-foot-6 Gola averaged nearly 21 points and 19 rebounds for La Salle from 1952-55. He then helped lead the Warriors to the 1956 NBA title as a rookie.

The five-time NBA All-Star concentrated on defence, rebounds and assists because the Warriors already had proven scorers in Chamberlain, Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston.

"My job was to guard the opponents' best guard — Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Bill Sharman — and be a playmaker," said Gola, who entered the Hall of Fame in 1976.

Gola's career was interrupted from 1956-58 when he served in the Army.

Gola coached La Salle from 1968-70 and finished with a 37-13 record. His 1968-69 team went 23-1, achieving a No. 2 ranking, but was ineligible for post-season play because of NCAA violations under a previous coach.

Gola also was involved in politics. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1966 and became Philadelphia city controller in 1970 as then-District Attorney Arlen Specter's running mate.

He was regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, then lost the Republican mayoral primary in 1983.

Gola ran an insurance agency for many years.

"I don't regret anything," Gola said in 1998. "Your body parts wear out, and you move on to something else. That's life."

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