Celebrating March Madness

This week in North Philly Notes, David Grzybowski, author of Mr. All-Around connects Tom Gola to March Madness.

What an opening weekend for March Madness. As you wait for your bracket to play out for your office bracket pool in the upcoming weeks remember this: March Madness wouldn’t exist without Philadelphia’s own, Tom Gola.

In the 1950’s the NCAA tournament took a backseat to the National Invitational Tournament tournament of today’s game. The roles were reversed, the NIT was bigger and the games attracted more fans to the court when the tournament games were played at Madison Square Garden in New York City. MSG was the mecca of college basketball in the 1950’s.

In 1951, a huge point-shaving scandal hit college basketball, with a total of seven schools and thirty-two players admitted to taking bribes from gamblers to control the outcomes of games. The scandal started with the City College of New York, Long Island University, and NYU and grew to a plethora of other teams throughout the early 1950’s. Teams were getting banned from post-season play and some players even got jail time. The point-shaving scandal was a slap in the face to college basketball fans at the time and the way the league was functioning. The NCAA had an image conflict; it needed a new face and a fresh start.

Mr All-Around_smEnter Tom Gola at La Salle University in 1952.

During his first season at 20th and Olney in 1952, Gola led the La Salle Explorers to the NIT tournament, a then 12 team tournament. In 1952, there was no play in game in Dayton, Ohio, there was no Selection Sunday show on television, and there was not a field of 68 teams vowing for the championship. Those 12 teams in the early 1950’s were at the center the college basketball landscape at Madison Square Garden.

When I interviewed La Salle men’s basketball alum, Ed Altieri for Mr. All-Around: The Life of Tom Gola, he remarked, “The NIT was the big draw. [You were] lucky to get something written in the paper about being in the NCAA’s [tournament].”

The NCAA was in dire need of a star caliber player to watch on the court. A multitude of NCAA teams lost their players to suspensions, jail time, and teams were sanctioned by the NCAA for postseason play. The league was in dire need of a new star player to follow. Gola’s rise to fame in the NCAA was due to his 6’6 frame being an all-around player on the court. He could be your teams point guard, shooting guard and snag 20 rebounds a game for your team. He was the perfect storm of a new superstar with an entirely new audience of college basketball fans watching. He was a breathe of fresh air to the basketball world.

In 1954, Gola led the La Salle Explorers to win the NCAA championship game against Bradley. He continued to rack up season accolades such as the NCAA Tournament Final MVP, Sports Magazine College Basketball Player of the Year and the Associated Press All-State First Team. Whenever Tom Gola was playing the country was watching. Whether it was the NIT, a Big 5 game at the Palestra or a NCAA tournament game, Gola was the star bringing college basketball back to its strong routes.

A year later in 1955 during his senior year, Gola and La Salle were back playing in the NCAA tournament championship game, this time facing Bill Russell, K.C Jones and San Francisco Dons. The Explorers lost thanks to Bill Russell’s MVP tournament play, making him the first African American player to be honored with that award in 1955. Once again Gola was at the epicenter of college basketball’s biggest dance, three out of the four years at La Salle Gola was the star of the final game of the season. The tarnished image of the NCAA was begging to pick back up with large thanks to Gola and his superstar play.

Gola’s dominance in the NCAA was the first of its kind in the college basketball in the 1950’s. Before his time there was never a player that was worth the price of admission to see Gola play on a daily basis. He packed Madison Square Garden on a regular basis. The firmly believe that the NCAA superstardom began with Tom Gola and continued to todays game in 2019 from Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Akeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant to LeBron James.

Tom Gola is the bridge between college basketball almost being destroyed by gamblers and corruption to the field of 68 teams and the March Madness hoopla we are used to today in 2019. While you’re are enjoying the madness, be sure to remember the college basketball legends that paved the way before us.

As the late great, Philadelphia Warriors PA announcer Dave Zinkoff would say, “Gola goal.”

 

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