by Bruce Marshakll, Goldsheet.com Editor

While the attention of the sporting public this past weekend was devoted to Super Bowl hype, outdoor hockey, and a rematch of last June’s NBA Finals between the Spurs and Heat (notice that we omitted the NFL Pro Bowl’s Team Rice vs. Team Sanders exhibition in Honolulu...no accident on our part!), a sad note passed across the sports wires that was likely overlooked in many locales, especially those outside of Philadelphia.

The passing of the legendary Tom Gola at the age of 81, however, ought to be acknowledged by any hoops fan, even those whose memories of the sport might begin in the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era of the ‘80s, or a little later when Michael Jordan became the marquee attraction.

Gola was one of those players from an earlier era who helped change the game in ways beyond many more-recognizable names of the sport. The likes of a handful of performers such as Gola, and a few others from his era like George Yardley, helped alter a game that had been played mostly flat-footed into the ‘50s. Those two played on the run and in the air and slightly preceded the likes of Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, and of course Wilt Chamberlain, who would further change the way the game was played as more African-American athletes began to make their presence felt in the sport.

At 6’6, Gola was a rarity for any era...a versatile superstar who was capable of playing any position. He excelled without flash or flamboyance. The legendary Sonny Hill, another Philadelphia hoops fixture, would compare him to Magic Johnson in a Philadelphia Inquirer story. “Tom was a big guy who could handle the ball and do it all,� said Hill, who has seen all of the greats for more than a half century.

Gola’s story read like an American fairy tale. For a while it seemed as if everything he touched would turn to gold. His La Salle Explorers won the NIT and NCAA titles before Gola became an All-Pro forward with his hometown Philadelphia Warriors, who would immediately win an NBA title. Gola’s teams won titles at every level of competition, from grade school level to the pros. Eventually he would coach La Salle to more glories, get elected to citywide office, and enjoy a successful business career. All just part of a fascinating life story.

Not too bad for a kid who grew up into a Philly legend from an Olney rowhouse, just around the corner from the Incarnation of Our Lord parish gym, where he learned the game that would make him a local legend. Gola transformed Incarnation’s team into national schoolboy champions before pacing La Salle College High to a city title before his more-renowned success in college and the pros.

“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on a basketball court,� Charlie Mohr, a teammate of Gola’s on the 1949-50 La Salle High team that won the city championship, said in a 1998 Inquirer story. “He could play point guard, center, and shut down the opponent’s big man.�

With Gola as their do-everything star, the Explorers won the 1952 NIT and 1954 NCAA titles and, in his senior season of 1955, were NCAA runners-up. In his four college years, La Salle won 102 of 121 games. He was an MVP in those NCAA and NIT titles, the college player of the year in 1955, and the first player named a first-team All-American four consecutive seasons.

Along the way he scored more than 20 ppg, although many who watched him play said he could have easily tallied at least another 10 ppg if he had a shooter’s mentality like a Pete Maravich. (Okay, maybe "gunner" in reference to Pistol Pete). And though he frequently brought the ball up court for coach Ken Loeffler’s La Salle teams, Gola managed to collect an astounding 2,201 rebounds, an NCAA career record that has stood for more than half a century.

Oh yes, Gola was also a star on La Salle’s track team as miler, half-miler, and shot-putter!

Then, in his rookie season with the hometown Warriors, who had made him a territorial pick, Gola helped Philly win the 1956 NBA title. He was a five-time NBA all-star during his 10 pro seasons, but once Wilt arrived on the Warriors, Gola became primarily a defensive specialist. He averaged 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists a game before retiring in 1966 after a stint with the New York Knicks.

Chamberlain counted himself among Gola’s fans. “When I was growing up, you whispered the name Tom Gola. He was like a saint,� once said Wilt, who was an Overbrook High schoolboy when Gola starred at La Salle.

Gola eventually coached two seasons at his alma mater, most notably guiding the Explorers to a 23-1 record and a No. 2 national ranking in 1968-69. But because of NCAA violations during the tenure of his predecessor, Jim Harding, those Explorers were ineligible for postseason play. He coached one more season at La Salle and then concentrated on politics.

Gola had been elected a state representative in his Northeast Philadelphia district in 1966. In 1969, he ran for city controller on a GOP ticket that included a district attorney candidate named...Arlen Specter, who had earlier worked with the Warren Commission and is credited with theorizing the “single-bullet theory� regarding the JFK assassination, and would eventually serve decades in the US Senate. Both men won by substantial margins in a heavily Democratic city...no mean feat for those who understand Philadelphia politics.

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976, Gola was also the first person to be honored twice by the Big Five Hall of Fame, as a coach in 1986 and, in 2000, as an “old-timer� since he played before the Big Five’s creation.

To honor Gola, we are reloading a portion of story we penned on these pages a few years ago when recalling the great La Salle team that he coached in 1968-69. It’s only part of the Gola legend, but a reminder of a different era in which everything the man touched seem to turn to gold. And we always like an excuse to talk about Big Five basketball. Following is an excerpt from “The Best Team You Never Saw,� which ran in the TGS Hoops issue dated January 9, 2012.

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The A-10 has thus existed in the shadow of the Big East for most of the past three decades, although with the addition of La Salle in 1995, it became the unofficial “Philadelphia� league for college hoops. The Explorers, along with Temple and St. Joe’s, comprise three-fifths of the famous “Big Five� of Philly hoops, along with Villanova and Ivy League Penn. And Philadelphia remains the nerve center of the A-10, although the league offices moved to Newport News, Virginia from Philly in 2009.

An introspective on the storied Big Five demands more time and space than we have in the hoops TGS. Each entry has a rich hoops tradition worthy of its own book, and we highly suggest a pilgrimage to Philadelphia for any serious college basketball fan. Although the days are long gone when almost all of the games involving Big Five schools were played at the venerable Palestra, the old arena on the Penn campus that still plays host to games involving the Ivy League Quakers, and, only occasionally these days, other Big Five schools.

Still, the Palestra is worth a special trip, if only to see the small museum at the site that’s dedicated to the history of Big Five hoops. And if there isn’t a game going on, we still suggest a side trip to the Palestra for any college hoops aficionado visiting Philadelphia. Much like taking a look inside of Hinkle Fieldhouse on the Butler campus in suburban Indianapolis, simply stepping foot inside of the Palestra for a look around is akin to a religious experience for a college basketball junkie. All the better, however, if you can be there during a game.

Big Five hoops tradition is rich, although there’s a special team from the past we would like to acknowledge before providing a quick review of what’s going on this season in the A-10.

College hoops history is replete with teams that, for one reason or another, weren’t allowed to compete for national titles. During the UCLA reign of terror under John Wooden between 1964-75, there were a handful of schools on probation that were ineligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament. (Which some college hoop insiders find almost laughable, considering what was going on in Westwood those days in the era of big booster Sam Gilbert.) Most famous among those is probably Norm Sloan’s North Carolina State team of 1972-73, featuring David Thompson, that finished 27-0; eligible the next year in 1973-74, the Wolfpack finally ended the Bruins’ string of seven straight championships. A great Florida State team featuring Dave Cowens was similarly handcuffed by the NCAA during the 1969-70 season.

But we wonder if the best of all of those teams that couldn’t compete for the title was the 1968-69 La Salle squad, which gained little notice outside of the Philadelphia city boundaries but retains great memories for those who ever watched that Explorer team perform.

Those Explorers had been put on a two-year probation by the NCAA for infractions committed in the late ’60s under coach Jim Harding, who left the school after one year for the ABA’s Minnesota Pipers, and Joe Heyer. Stepping into the coaching breach was all-time Explorer great Tom Gola, who had led La Salle to the 1952 NIT and 1954 NCAA titles before a decorated career in the NBA with the hometown Philadelphia Warriors, and then the Knicks, before retiring in 1966. Gola had become a successful businessman and political figure in the city before being recalled by his alma mater as coach. The arena on La Salle’s campus also bears his name.

The 1968-69 team was a masterpiece, featuring a go-go offense that would trigger its devastating transition game at any opportunity. The addition of 6’7 soph F Ken Durrett (remember, freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition from the late ’50s until the 1972-73 season) added an irresistible force to the Explorer lineup that also included a collection of pro-bound guards in Bernie Williams, Roland “Fatty� Taylor, and Larry Cannon, plus another guard named Fran Dunphy, whom you might better recognize as a modern-day coach (now at crosstown Temple). Though only 6-6, rugged frontliner Stan Wlodarczyk was a good match for any enemy big men.

Gola, noted for outstanding defense during his NBA career and reared on a style of balance and teamwork preached by his La Salle coach, Ken Loeffler, quickly remade those Explorers in his own image as a player. La Salle was always noted for its hurry-up teams, but the Explorers were also notorious for selfish play and non-commitment on defense. Much of that changed under Gola.

The Gola Explorers played fast and possessed remarkable quickness and symmetry within their lineup. Cannon and Williams, noted gunners, began to effectively share the ball. To combat enemy zone defense, Gola installed the old “weave� to provide scoring chances for all. The Explorers were strictly man-to-man on the defensive end, however, and they played it ferociously.

But it was the magnificent Durrett who triggered the break with his board work and remarkable finishing ability. La Salle ran better than any Big Five team since the Temple entries of the late ’50s that featured Guy Rodgers and Hal Lear, but the Explorers had the bonus of the irrepressible Durrett, who could dominate at both ends of the floor.

Gola’s 1968-69 La Salle side also had excellent depth, reflected in a game at powerful Niagara against the Purple Eagles’ All-American guard, Calvin Murphy. With Cannon suspended for missing the team bus and Taylor sidelined by the flu, Gola had to reach into his bench for help. Stepping into the breach was none other than Fran Dunphy, who kept Murphy in check, while the Explorers rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit behind Durrett and reserve Ed Szczesny, who scored 18 points and hauled in 14 rebounds. La Salle won going away, 88-73.

The Explorers’ only defeat was a close call in the finals of the Quaker City Holiday Classic against an excellent, Frank McGuire-coached South Carolina team featuring G John Roche.

A February 8th matchup vs. crosstown Villanova proved the highlight of the season. The Wildcats had their own sophomore star in 6’8 F Howard Porter, who was scoring 23 ppg and had recently tallied 36 against Big Five St. Joe’s. The prospect of a Porter vs. Durrett matchup whet the appetite of all Philly hoops junkies.

The game didn’t disappoint, as it was a back-and-forth thriller at the Palestra. Jack Kraft’s Wildcat zone defense, with the shot-swatting Porter, awaited any Explorer forays into the lane, testing Gola’s troops. Nonetheless, La Salle jumped to a 23-17 lead behind the hot shooting of Bernie Williams, who scored eight straight points at one stage. Back, though, came Villanova, regrouping after court leader Frank Gillen left the game briefly with an injured knee. A spurt fueled by Porter and fellow F Johnny Jones resulted in a 9-0 run and a Wildcat lead, although La Salle had wrested back the advantage (though just barely) by halftime when it took a 34-33 lead into the break.

Gillen’s return to action fueled a quick Nova surge after the break to put the Cats ahead 42-38, but a defensive switch by Gola turned the momentum back into La Salle’s favor when Cannon was assigned to Jones, who had been hurting the Explorers until that point. With Jones properly muffled by the now defense-conscious Cannon, and Durrett beginning to get the upper hand in his personal duel with Porter (which was worth the price of admission alone, as the two complemented their offensive prowess with several highlight-reel defensive plays, and numerous shot blocks), La Salle went on a 10-0 spurt to take a 48-42 lead.

Still, the Wildcats had another run left in them, with Porter fueling one more charge to pull Nova within 2 at 63-61 with only 3:45 to play. At that point, however, Kraft had to instruct his zone defense to come out higher to force the action and help negate any La Salle delay tactics, but it was eventually to prove the Cats’ downfall. Williams, spotting an opening in the defense, fed the ball near the bucket for a lob pass to the acrobatic Durrett, who converted and was fouled in the process. Villanova never recovered from that traditional 3-point play, and Gola’s La Salle ended a 74-67 winner.

A few summers ago, Comcast Sports in Philadelphia decided to rebroadcast that memorable game, with in-studio commentary at the breaks provided by Dunphy and Villanova G Fran O’Hanlon, like Dunphy a modern-day coach (O’Hanlon at nearby, Easton-based Lafayette). Though almost 40 years after the original, it provided for spell-binding viewing. But it was also bittersweet, as Porter had recently passed away, as had the once-marvelous Durrett, who died in his native Pittsburgh at the age of 52 in 2001. Nonetheless, we strongly recommend any hoop fans to find that Comcast footage and take a look for themselves at the magic of that memorable night at the Palestra in February of 1969.

There were no more postscripts for the remarkable La Salle side from 1969 other than finishing the regular season 23-1 and ranked second in the final polls behind national champ UCLA. Sadly, Durrett’s playing career had a negative ending, too, when he suffered a knee injury during his senior season and was never the same player thereafter. The Durrett who was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals in 1971 was a shell of the great player Durrett was in his pre-injury days at La Salle.

Philadelphia hoop aficionados have long maintained that La Salle’s ’69 team would have had a shot at John Wooden’s UCLA title winners led by Lew Alcindor had the Explorers been allowed to participate in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins, who only lost vs. crosstown rival Southern Cal in a slowdown game that season, played a representative schedule that campaign, although the Pac-8 of that year was nowhere near as competitive as the Big Five in which La Salle participated. If the dream matchup ever occurred, most hoop insiders believe Alcindor would have eventually made the difference, especially considering how Durrett or Wlodarczyk would be giving up 7-8 inches to Big Lew. But others, noting how a Drake team similar in style to La Salle had almost derailed the Bruins in the Final Four, losing by only an 85-82 count, believe that Gola’s Explorers would have had more than a puncher’s chance against the Bruins. The backcourt edge enjoyed by La Salle against that particular UCLA team would have been substantial, and UCLA never had to face a force such as the electric Durrett that season.

We’ll never know what might have transpired. But for Big Five fans old enough to remember, there was never any winner or loser to a UCLA-La Salle dream matchup in 1969 because it never happened. Instead, the potential battle can live forever in the minds of those who recall both teams.

And what a clash it would have been!

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Meanwhile, here’s a quick review of winners and losers from college hoops over the weekend before our next “Bracketology� update in TGS Weekend Hoops, available on Thursday night.

WINNER...Providence. A few weeks ago we were wondering if the Friars were going to do enough to get on the NIT’s radar screen, much less the Big Dance. And HC Ed Cooley was beginning to feel some heat as his senior-laden team underachieved for almost the entirety of December. But the Friars have turned things around and then some with five straight wins to certainly get back into the NCAA “bubble� discussion as the season prepares to enter February. After struggling for a month or so following an injury to playmaking PG Kris Dunn, PC has found traction once again on the attack end with do-everything G Bryce Cotton, who has moved back to the point from his preferred off-guard slot but has continued to flourish nonetheless, not only maintaining his 20+ ppg scoring but also dishing nearly six assists per game. The offense, which did not have much flow after Dunn’s injury, suddenly is generating better looks, as Cotton has been able to work swooping 6-6 wing LeDontae Henton (14 ppg and scorer of 23 in last Saturday’s win over Xavier) and 6-9 NC State soph transfer Tyler Harris (13.1 ppg) into the flow while battering ram 6-10 sr. Kadeem Batts (13 ppg and 8 rpg) focuses on crashing the boards and picking up valuable “garbage� points around the hoop. We’ll find out more this week as the Friars take to the road after winning four of those last five at home. But for the moment, Providence is back in both the Big East and Big Dance discussions.

LOSER: Baylor...In a league as deep as the Big 12, there are bound to be a few casualties, and it is beginning to look as if Baylor might be one of those. Suddenly, after a 74-60 home loss to resurgent Texas on Saturday, the Bears have lost four in a row and are quickly slipping into Big Dance bubble trouble. Baylor continues to be plagued by turnover problems and defensive shortcomings, and the offense simply ran aground against the Longhorns, connecting on only 18 of 56 shots from the floor (32%) while missing 14 of 17 triples. It was also the latest in a series of hot-and-cold efforts by designated gunner Brady Heslip, who missed all four of his shots beyond the arc against Texas. Worryingly for Baylor, and any slumping Big 12 team, is the unforgiving slate, which includes Oklahoma State, Kansas, and Oklahoma in the next two weeks. Many regional observers believe that Tuesday night’s game vs. West Virginia has taken on must-win significance for Baylor, which could slide all of the way out of the NCAA Tourney picture if it continues losing for much longer.

WINNER: Seton Hall...Like Providence, the Hall is another Big East entry making some noise in recent weeks, and notched its fourth straight cover in a Saturday 86-69 romp past visiting DePaul. It was also the third game back for both F Fuquan Edwin (15.5 ppg) and C Gene Teague (60.2% from floor) after each had missed action due to injuries. The only loss since their return was a bitter 1-point setback at St. John’s when the Pirates made a valiant comeback from a double-digit deficit and were unfortunate not to get the outright win when unable to get off a shot in the final seconds. The Hall, however, has shown resilience in recent weeks, with numerous comeback efforts for underrated HC Kevin Willard, who has the Pirates competing on a nightly basis. With a veteran core that also includes former Georgia Tech transfer G Brian Oliver, the Hall figures to cause a lot of problems for Big East contenders in February and will be an interesting darkhorse for the conference tourney at MSG. And if the Pirates fall short of the Big Dance, they could cause significant damage in one of the other postseason tourneys.

LOSER: Colorado...In the Pac-12, while Oregon finally stopped its free-fall with a Sunday win at lowly Washington State, Colorado continues to drop like a rock after being swept by the Arizona schools over the weekend. While no shame in last Thursday’s 12-point loss at top-ranked Arizona, the Buffs were never in it in a subsequent 72-51 beatdown in Tempe administered by Herb Sendek’s Arizona State. Worryingly, CU is now 1-4 SU since star G Spencer Dinwiddie went out for the season with a knee injury Jan. 12 at Washington, and CU is having a hard time replacing not only his scoring (team-best 14.7 ppg), but leadership as well. Touted 6-5 frosh G Jaron Hopkins, slotted into the starting lineup in Dinwiddie’s absence, has yet to step up, especially over the last four games, when cracking double-digit scoring just once (and that was just 10 points vs. lowly USC in CU’s only win of that stretch) and over the past six games is only 9 for his last 36 from the floor, a cool (and that’s not a “good� cool) 25%. The Buffs’ three-point shooting, which has been hovering around 30% all season, was especially ineffective in the desert (just 6 of 22 over the two games vs. the Wildcats and Sun Devils). Unfortunately for HC Tad Boyle, Dinwiddie is not returning until next season. The Buffs have a chance to get well in the next week with three straight home games vs. Utah and the Washington schools, but if CU can’t take advantage, it could easily slide into NIT-land.

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