Gryzbowski, David. Mr. All-Around: The Life of Tom Gola. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2019. Pp 181. Foreword by Bill Raftery, introduction, appendices.
Reviewed by Murry Nelson
Mr. All-Around: The Life of Tom Gola is a pleasant little book.
However, David Gyrzbowski’s biography of Gola is more geared to general readership, especially those with Philadelphia interests, rather than sport historians. The real strength of the volume is the numerous interviews, as Gryzbowski not only interviewed Gola’s widow, Caroline, but also a number of others with deep Philadelphia roots and connections. These interviews produce a book that is about much more than basketball, with fully half the book focusing on Philadelphia politics, which Gola was involved with after his retirement from professional basketball.
Of course, much of Gola’s political career was a result of the name he made for himself as a star at La Salle and, later, with the Philadelphia Warriors, whom he joined in 1955 as their territorial draft choice, a phenomenon no longer a part of the NBA draft process.
At that time, the NBA sought “hometown heroes” to develop and maintain interest in professional basketball, which was far behind college basketball in popularity. The Warriors made Wilt Chamberlain their territorial draft pick in 1959 to join Gola and the team finished second in the Eastern Division standings and the playoffs to the great Boston Celtics team, led by Bill Russell, that dominated that era. Russell had also led the University of San Francisco to NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, defeating in the former year Gola’s La Salle team in the NCAA finals after Gola had led the Explorers to the NCAA title in 1954. He also was the star of the 1952 La Salle team that won the NIT championship, which, at the time, was as big as the NCAA tourney.
Gryzbowski chronicles Gola’s collegiate career in fewer pages than one might hope, although he offsets that by providing great statistics on Gola’s four years at La Salle. According to Gyrzbowski, Gola’s total of 2201 rebounds in his college career, the all-time NCAA record, is unlikely to ever be broken since it was compiled over four years and top players almost never stay that long in college anymore. Extensive statistics on his ten years in the NBA also are included.
When the Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1963, Gola prevailed upon the Warriors to trade him back to the East. He thus would play his last two NBA seasons with the New York Knicks. He then coached La Salle for two seasons, from 1968-70. In 1976, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Ten years prior, Gola had been elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature. Three years after that, in 1969, he was elected Philadelphia city controller, but he would lose his re-election bid due to the suspicion that Watergate cast over the Republican Party. Gola, nevertheless, remained active in Republican Party politics. He was a regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1980-82 before running for mayor of Philadelphia in 1983. Gola lost to Wilson Goode, ending his nearly two-decade career in politics. For the rest of his life, Gola was an unpaid recruiter and mentor for La Salle basketball, while also working as an executive in a number of fields. He died in 2014.
Gryzbowski addresses all of Gola’s life after basketball in the same well-researched manner that approached Gola’s basketball career. However, the absence of notes is somewhat frustrating, even as Gryzbowski does provide a list of sources, which includes books, newspaper articles, magazine pieces, on-line articles and La Salle media guides. Thus, while the book is an easy read, it is not of great utility to sport historians.
Murry Nelson is a Professor Emeritus of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of basketball.