Bobby Pope

La Salle is coming to town

Pookie Powell’s La Salle team plays Thursday at Mercer.
Pookie Powell’s La Salle team plays Thursday at Mercer. AP

Philadelphia is a Mecca for college basketball. The city of Brotherly Love, known for its cheese steaks, is home of Big 5 basketball, which is an informal association of college athletics programs.

Those programs are defending NCAA basketball champion Villanova, Pennsylvania, Temple, Saint Joseph’s and La Salle. The Big 5 formed in 1955, and the schools played a round-robin schedule until 1991. After an eight-year hiatus, it was revived in 1999 and continues today. Temple has the most titles in the series with 27. At least one member of the Big 5 has made it into the NCAA tournament for 39 straight years.

In addition to 2016, Villanova won the NCAA title in 1985, but it was not the first Big 5 program to win the national title. That honor goes to La Salle, which took the 1954 crown, beating Bradley 92-76.

This year’s edition of the Explorers will be in Macon at 7 p.m. on Thursday to battle Mercer at Hawkins Arena. It’s only the second time in Mercer history that the Bears have hosted a program that has won an NCAA Division I basketball title. The only previous time came during the 1979-80 season when Mercer lost 81-63 to North Carolina in a game played at the Macon Coliseum.

Jones County’s Al Wood was playing for the Tar Heels at the time, and North Carolina head coach Dean Smith always made an effort to play a game in the area where his players came from.

La Salle has a storied basketball history with almost 1,300 wins since it began the sport in 1931. It was a basketball power in the 1950s, and in addition to winning the NCAA title in 1954, La Salle claimed the NIT title in 1952. At that time, the NIT was regarded on par with the NCAA Tournament if not a little higher.

The Explorers have had three national players of the year, which is third most for a team, trailing only Duke and Ohio State in that department. Tom Gola was the 1954 and 1955 player of the year, Michael Brooks in 1980 and Lionel Simmons in 1990. Gola is the player who put La Salle on the map.

As a freshman, the Philadelphia native led the Explorers to that NIT title and the NCAA title two years later when he was named the tournament MVP. As a senior, he helped La Salle to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament as it lost to the Bill Russell-led San Francisco Dons in the championship game.

During the 115 games of his college career, Gola averaged 20.9 points and 19.0 rebounds. He still holds the NCAA record for rebounds with 2,201. ESPN ranked Gola as the 17th greatest college basketball player of all time. He was a three-time consensus first-team All-American. Gola is a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, and the basketball facility at La Salle is named in his honor.

He went on to play 11 years in the NBA and helped lead the Philadelphia Warriors to the NBA crown in 1956. He was a five-time NBA All-Star.

Gola was the head coach at La Salle for two seasons, compiling a 27-13 record. His 1968-69 team finished 23-1 but was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament because an alumnus had offered some players “no show jobs.”

He entered the political arena in 1968 and was elected to the Pennsylvania State House as a Republican. He also served as Philadelphia City Controller for four years. Gola died at age 81 in 2014.

This year’s La Salle team brings a 5-4 record to Macon for its first meeting with the Bears after finishing at 9-22 a year ago. The Explorers last made it to the NCAA Tournament in 2012-13, advancing to the Sweet 16.

LaSalle is one of the true blue bloods of college basketball and having the Explorers play in Macon is quite a treat.

Hope you and your family have a great Christmas.

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