The book got inside his head, the idea of it. David Grzybowski had gone to La Salle, graduated in 2013. That was the year, of course, the Explorers went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. That wasn’t the book Grzybowski had in his head.
The Explorers played inside Tom Gola Arena. That was the book. Tom Gola.
“A month before the A-10 tournament, I was doing a project of the history of the La Salle Explorers mascots for a senior video project,’’ Grzybowski said. He was at the school’s archives, talking to the long-time archivist, Brother Joseph Grabenstein, who had been filling a box for years in his basement enclave in College Hall. The box was full of Tom Gola.
That day, Grabenstein mentioned to Grzybowski he was going to see Gola that weekend.
Grzybowski isn’t a shy guy. He’s willing to push a bit, which comes in handy. After graduation, he got in the television sports journalism business.
“Can I come with you? Grzybowski asked about the Gola visit. “Can I write a story for the Collegian?”
The answer, it turned out, was yes. That day, this Christian Brother also said something else.
“I don’t even know if it was to me,’’ Grzybowski said. “He said out loud, ‘Someone should write a book about Tom Gola.’ ‘’
Almost six years later, a book is out, Mr. All-Around, the LIfe of Tom Gola, by David Grzybowski. A La Salle graduate wrote about the life of La Salle’s most illustrious basketball alum, the man whose NCAA career rebounding mark of 2,201 has stood for over 60 years, with nobody getting within 400 rebounds of it over the last 40 years.
That’s impressive? As a rookie with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1955-56, Gola basically played point guard as the team won the NBA title.
That’s Magic Johnson before Magic Johnson was born type stuff -- again, career NCAA rebounding leader. Rookie point guard for NBA champions.
Of course, that name went far beyond the court, as Gola career included a brief successful stint as La Salle’s coach, as a businessman, and famously as controller of the City of Philadelphia.
Still, a statue of Gola graces the arena with his name on it because of his feats as a ballplayer. That’s the spine of Grzybowski’s book, this singular career.
Grzybowski did accompany Grabenstein to Gola’s house in 2013, the year before Gola died. A stroke had made it difficult for Gola to speak, but this son of a policeman from the Olney section of Philadelphia explained to the La Salle undergraduate, “I was born with these hands. They were given to me by God.”
The book was, in a sense, a labor of love.
“I kind of want to share this,’’ Grzybowski said. “I had moved down to Raleigh.”
He had a TV job.
“I got engaged on a Wednesday,’’ Grzybowski said. “A couple of days later, I got laid off. My now-wife talked to me -- I think she even told me that night, ‘You’re going to finish the book.’ I just put my head down.”
So that’s what he did. He already had gotten about 60 percent through it, he said. For the next four or five months, he got to the end.
“It was like a perfect storm -- now I have time to finish this,’’ Grzybowski said.
Tom Gola’s wife, Caroline, was beyond helpful as Grzybowski dug into the research.
“She would give a number -- I think she had Bob Cousy’s number and it was the same number,’’ he said. “She’s like family to me now. She came to my wedding.”
At Tom Gola’s funeral, Grzybowski sat next to Brother Joseph Grabenstein, who gave the eulogy that day, a spectacular tour through Gola’s life. The pastor quoted Longfellow. "Not in the clamor of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat."
Sitting there in the second row, just behind the family,Grzybowski remembers telling himself, “I’m meant to write this book.”
Everybody helped, even people he met at the funeral home, since such endeavors become a group project of sorts, a legacy at the center of it.
The reason the book was important, Grzybowski said, he came to realize as a student at La Salle, other students really didn’t know the man. He was just a name on a building.
“I don’t think people know Gola,’’ Grzybowski said.
He’ll take you back to a different time and place, seven children in a little rowhouse, a father who also moonlighted as a mechanic, who was rarely seen except for summer sojourns to Wildwood.
Of a boy who rose to the top.
“No one, including Cousy, no one said a bad word about Gola,’’ Grzybowski said. “At one point, I said, ‘I know this guy isn’t Saint Gola. No one is perfect.’ ‘’
His own admiration never wavered, the author made clear. The book is out now, published by Temple University Press. The title, Grzybowski decided, just fit. There’s no sense denying the obvious.