In the waning days of his senior year at LaSalle University, David Grzybowski endeavored to answer a seemingly simple question: who was Tom Gola?
After five years of research, interviews, and writing sessions between his shifts as a television reporter, Grzybowksi delivered his answer in the form of a biography. The book, titled Mr. All-Around: The Life of Tom Gola, is available in bookstores now.
Mr. All-Around checks in at a little over 200 pages, but you won’t have trouble breezing through the contents in little more than a weekend. Grzybowksi’s writing style is plain and unpretentious. His text thankfully lacks the contrived alliterative phrases that pollute television copy.
The subject of the book proves to be a bit more enigmatic. When Grzybowski took on this project, Gola was in the winter of his life. A fall in 2003 had left the former basketball star physically impaired; Gola would spend the rest of his life recovering at St. Joseph’s Manor, an assisted living facility on Huntington Pike in Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania. Gola passed away in January 2014 at the age of 81.
Grzybowksi acknowledges in his introduction that “a stroke made it difficult for Gola to speak” during his lone meeting with his subject. Nevertheless, the two were able to speak about Gola’s “playing career and his time at LaSalle,” Grzybowksi told me in an email exchange.
The seeds of this discussion form the basis of Mr. All-Around, which chronicles Gola’s journey from a basement gym in Olney to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Along the way, Grzybowski documents Gola’s time at LaSalle College High School and LaSalle College. He also details Gola’s decade-long NBA career with the Philadelphia Warriors and the New York Knicks.
At LaSalle, Gola would witness the birth of the Big Five. However, he was not a mere bystander to college basketball history; indeed, Gola spent his time on the Olney campus solidifying his own place in the collegiate record books. By the time Gola finished his NCAA career, he would play on teams that won the NIT championship and the NCAA championship. According to the Hall of Fame, Gola “was the first player in collegiate history to score 2,000 points and grab over 2,000 rebounds.” Grzybowski notes that “from December 2, 1953, to January 29, 1955, Gola recorded 48 straight double-doubles, an NCAA record.”
One of the challenges of sports writing is incorporating statistics into a story without the data overwhelming the narrative. Grzybowski is doubly burdened in this regard because he’s writing about a legend who is not particularly well known among younger generations. Sure, casual fans may be familiar with Gola’s name, but how much do they know about his career? The result is Grzybowkski has to spend a disproportionate amount of time detailing game statistics and season statistics. He also has a tendency to go down the proverbial rabbit hole, documenting the careers of Gola’s peers in discursive tangents.
I think Grzybowksi would have been better served speaking with Gola at the end of his research process. The basketball star’s voice and perspective is largely not present as Grzybowski documents Gola’s career achievements. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice the missed opportunities to incorporate personal anecdotes. What was it like, for example, to travel the country playing basketball in the ’50s and ’60s? What was it like to play with Wilt Chamberlain? How has the game of basketball changed, if at all, in the intervening decades? Was Gola, a 6’6″ forward who could defend guards, a player who was ahead of his time? Did his usage revolutionize the game, or were there other basketball players built like forwards who could play guard? More material from Gola himself would have helped Grzybowski, a first time author, remain focused on his subject.
However, this limitation is more a result of unfortunate circumstances than any deliberate shortcoming of the author. Grzybowski can’t control the fact that he had a limited amount of time with his subject, who was dealing with health issues that hampered his ability to communicate. Gola’s frequent absence in the telling of his own story is actually poignant, given the image of a humble man that Grzybowski establishes through interviews with Gola’s family and friends.
And Mr. All-Around really shines when Grzybowski gives way to the reminiscences he has collected during his research. Philadelphia natives will appreciate Gola’s childhood experiences in Olney. I could personally relate to Gola’s upbringing in a crowded row home, stuffed in a bedroom with too many siblings and not enough beds. Moreover, anyone who had the misfortune of playing in a low ceiling gym like The Pit at North Catholic High School could appreciate how Gola’s line-drive shooting style developed during his days at Incarnation. The story of Gola’s father, Ike, who worked as a police officer and moonlit as a mechanic, will resonate with many of us whose fathers and grandfathers made the down payments on our American Dreams.
It’s tempting to extract an anecdote from Mr. All-Around to bolster an incomplete narrative about the ways in which the world has dramatically changed. Of course, it’s almost incomprehensible to imagine a professional athlete carving out a middle-class existence in Somerton, or taking a season off to fulfill a military obligation. It’s also difficult to imagine college students managing long distance relationships by letter. However, Grzybowski’s book is teeming with examples that demonstrate just how similar “back then” was to today.
When you read about North Carolina State’s head coach offering the Gola family $250 for their son’s commitment to his basketball program, it doesn’t seem much different from the culture of corruption that plagues the NCAA today. Grzybowski told me that Gola’s stellar career at LaSalle “saved college basketball in the early 1950’s after a large point shaving scandal that involved a ton of teams in the NCAA” undermined the credibility of the sport. Moreover, Gola would serve as LaSalle’s head coach for two seasons in the late ’60s after an improper benefits scandal cost the program two years of postseason eligibility. Can we really make the case that the integrity of college athletics is threatened by money if said integrity never existed in the first place?
Gola’s moral principles, on the other hand, seem unimpeachable after reading Mr. All-Around. Whether it was helping connect a grocery clerk with scholarship opportunities or dispensing advice to Lionel Simmons about navigating the business of sports, Gola comes across as an equal opportunity helper. The reader gets the impression that Gola was a man whose presence in the lives of others was never ostentatious but always influential.
Ultimately, Mr. All-Around is well worth your time, especially if you have an interest in the history of Big Five basketball and the athletes who established the foundation on which it exists today. In chronicling Gola, Grzybowski brings to life a man whose legacy deserves a more prominent place than the rafters of a gymnasium or a trophy case.