Tom Gola, a virtual folk hero in Philadelphia for his basketball exploits there in high school, college and the pros in the 1950s, died on Sunday in Meadowbrook, Pa. He was 81.
His death was announced by his alma mater, La Salle University.
Gola, who was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976, is one of only a few players to play on N.C.A.A., National Invitation Tournament and N.B.A. championship teams. But that would hardly surprise anyone who saw him play, especially Philadelphians.
He remains the N.C.A.A.’s Division I career rebounds leader with 2,201, and was a three-time consensus all-American.
Gola was a smooth-striding big man of 6 feet 6 inches, but lean at 200 pounds. He could play center, where he outmuscled and out-timed burlier players for rebounds; he could play forward; he could dribble the ball upcourt and pass off as a guard. Essentially, he could do whatever was needed: make soaring hook shots with his back to the basket as a center; make one-handed set shots; steal the ball as a clever defender.
Thomas Joseph Gola was born on Jan. 13, 1933, in Philadelphia, and was a star at La Salle High School. He was perhaps the most acclaimed schoolboy player in the country. Because of his extraordinary talent, many had expected him to go to one of the leading basketball universities, like Kentucky or North Carolina. Instead, he stayed near home and entered La Salle in 1951.
Philadelphia was a basketball hotbed in those days, with fans cheering for one or more of the teams in the so-called Big Five: La Salle, Temple, Villanova, St. Joseph’s and the University of Pennsylvania.
Gola starred as a college freshman and led La Salle to the N.I.T. championship. Two years later, the Explorers captured the National Collegiate Athletic Association title, defeating Bradley in the first N.C.A.A. title game to be nationally televised, and Gola was named the most valuable player. In his senior year, La Salle made it to the championship game again, but lost to the University of San Francisco and its star center, Bill Russell.
On the 50th anniversary of Madison Square Garden’s Holiday Festival in 2002, Gola was honored as one of the tournament’s five greatest players, along with Princeton’s Bill Bradley, Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, Chris Mullin of St. John’s and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of U.C.L.A.
In Gola’s four years at La Salle, the Explorers had a record of 102-19, and he averaged 20.9 points and 18.7 rebounds a game. But his hometown exploits did not end with college. He went on to play professionally with the Philadelphia Warriors, and in his rookie season, he was a key figure — along with Paul Arizin, another Philadelphia native; and Neil Johnston — in the Warriors’ winning the National Basketball Association title.
Gola was not as dazzling a professional player, perhaps because of his in-between size. But he remained a solid all-around contributor over 10 N.B.A. seasons, including six with the Warriors, who moved to San Francisco in 1962; and four with the Knicks, to whom he was traded in December that year. Gola was a five-time N.B.A. All-Star. In his pro career, he averaged 11.3 points, 8 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game.
He is survived by his wife, Caroline; a son, Thomas; four sisters, Wanda Lucas, Joan Wozniak, Catherine Eisele and Claire Kerrigan; two brothers, John and Paul; and two grandchildren.
In 1966, shortly after his playing career ended, Gola was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
He went back to La Salle as coach for two seasons, starting in 1968. In his second season, the club posted a 23-1 record but was ineligible for tournaments because of previous violations. Gola became Philadelphia’s city controller in 1970, and unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1983.
He remained a Philadelphia fixture, and in 1998, La Salle named its arena for him.
Correction: January 30, 2014
An obituary on Tuesday about the basketball star Tom Gola, using information from La Salle University, his alma mater, misstated the surname of one of his sisters, who survives him. She is Catherine Eisele, not Eile. The obituary also referred imprecisely to the 1954 N.C.A.A. championship game, in which La Salle defeated Bradley and Mr. Gola was named the most valuable player. It was the first N.C.A.A. title game to be nationally televised, not the first to be televised. (N.C.A.A. tournament games were first televised regionally in 1952.)