The program at La Salle University fits in with the tradition of Philadelphia basketball, as the Explorers have a rich history in the sport. The 1950s were the glory years for the small Catholic school, as the team won both an NCAA and NIT championship, led by Tom Gola. While La Salle saw bouts of varying success in the next few decades, recent history featured many losing seasons and a controversial scandal in 2004 that was the University’s low point. La Salle has since cleaned up the program, and winning has returned to the floor, as they thrilled fans and alumni with a Sweet 16 run in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. After playing at various venues throughout the city, La Salle returned to campus in 1998 with the completion of Tom Gola Arena. Unfortunately, the building does not do the great Explorer justice, as there are several flaws in what should be considered a relatively new facility. With the program back on track, it is too bad they don’t play in a better home, but at least the fans make the building an enjoyable place for basketball.
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One of the issues at Tom Gola Arena is the design of where the food is located. A lone concession stand services the entire building, and at halftime, it is clearly overwhelmed, as those servicing behind the counter do an adequate job of trying to keep up. The space (more like a room) where the food stand is located is cramped, as well. As for the actual items, the basics are served, which includes hot dogs, pizza, nachos, popcorn and soft pretzels. Water and Coca-Cola fountain drinks are the beverages. The nice thing is the price, as pretty much every item is $3 or less.
After walking up a couple of staircases to reach the arena floor, fans are greeted with a gym that features seating on each sideline. Most of the seats are of bleacher variety; however, one side does have a section of blue chairbacks close to the floor. It is tight and very warm inside, with the seating at the top of the bleachers less than desirable. Various ceiling obstructions will block the view of the scoreboard from up here, and it also feels further from the action than in other small arenas. The scoreboard at center court is basic, but there are a couple of very nice video screens in each corner which display clear replays. At least the fans make the game-day atmosphere a good one, as this relatively new facility already seems dated.
La Salle is located near the Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia, about 15-20 minutes north of Center City (downtown). There really is not much for visitors to see or do in this part of the city, and the basketball game is the lone attraction. For those that plan to eat before or after a game, there is one place that is worth a stop. Between the parking lot and arena, Explorers Den is a small, college-town place that offers traditional Philly favorites. The cheesesteaks are pretty good, as are the hoagies, and it is a nice little shop to grab a sandwich.
The game I attended was a sell-out, and the fans did a great job rooting on the Explorers. Philadelphia is a knowledgeable and passionate college basketball city, and the fans at La Salle fit that mold. The crowd followed the ebb and flow of the game, and without prompting by a scoreboard, they rose to their feet at the big moments. Tom Gola Arena is a small gym, and that allows for the noise to really build (along with the temperature). Students were out in full force, as both the Pep Band and the Explorer Entourage filled an entire section and a half. There was a tight-knit community feel to the event, and that was further evidenced by the loud applause when the PA announcer welcomed the school's Catholic leadership at the game. While La Salle may be at the bottom of the attendance rankings in the Atlantic 10, their fan support is good and crowds have increased over the last few years.
La Salle University sits in between Philadelphia's major Interstates (I-76, I-95 and the Turnpike), and while access is mostly straightforward, there can be a lot of stoplights that you have to sit through on the way to campus. Parking is a little awkward because it is in a shopping center, but it is easy to find and there are signs directing cars there. Plus, the walk to and from the arena is short and safe. Getting out after the game is not a problem, but be aware that occasional traffic can be found around the city's main roads, especially on a weeknight. There is public transportation nearby, as the Olney Transportation Center is a subway stop on the Broad Street Line. However, this may not be the best route to get to the game. The area is not the best, and there is a good distance between the station and arena, which is a walk most will not want to take.
Going through the entry portion of Tom Gola Arena, the hallways and stairwells are somewhat tight and bathrooms are not to be found until actually reaching the gym, where there is only one bathroom each for men and women. At least there is some room inside, and lines at halftime are not terrible.
This is where the Tom Gola Arena experience really shines, and it starts with free parking. Other schools in Philadelphia charge $8 to $15 for parking, and La Salle should be commended for keeping it free for the fans. Ticket prices are also quite reasonable, as each game is $15 for bleachers and $20 for chairbacks. The Atlantic 10 is a quality basketball league, and with La Salle now a solid team, the price of a game here is very good.
La Salle's rich basketball history is displayed nicely in the rafters above. Banners commemorating various team achievements are highlighted by the 1954 NCAA Championship. There are also five retired numbers, and these uniquely feature pictures of the player honored. Elsewhere around the facility, be sure to check out the display cases near the food stand and the plaques for both Tom Gola and Blake Hayman.
Another name that La Salle produced is worthy of a point on its own - none other than Bill Raftery! The man who has brought so much joy, enthusiasm and Onions to the TV analyst position, graduated from LaSalle and played for the Explorers in the 1960s.
La Salle is part of Philadelphia's Big Five, a group of teams in the city that play against each other each year for bragging rights and a championship that has no trophy. It is one of the few pure things left in the sport and should be cherished. The biggest rival for La Salle within the group of five is arguably Saint Joseph's, and each game is quite passionate.
After the team's recent Sweet 16 appearance, La Salle is back on the national map, though the program was always an integral part of Philadelphia's basketball universe. Fans are excited about their team, and the close-knit community feel in a big city is refreshing as one enjoys a game in the toasty and loud Tom Gola Arena. While the facility lacks in many areas, it does well in providing the Explorers a nice home-court advantage.
While Philadelphia might be currently known for basketball powerhouses Temple and Villanova, the other three Big 5 schools aren't exactly slackers, either. La Salle has a national title to their name "" albeit in 1954 "" as part of back-to-back title game appearances, though the Explorers haven't made the NCAA tournament since 1992.
The Explorers played on-campus back in 1954 at Wister Hall, but spent the next 33 years playing away from 19th and Olney, moving back to the Tom Gola Arena when it was opened back in 1998. Part of the school's Hayman Center, the home of the school's athletic department, Gola seats 4000 in a clean, well-lit gym, though with very few bells-and-whistles.
Great college old time gym (even though it is fairly new).
Now that they are winning again the crowd is into it.
Do not take the subway unless you are armed!!!
I found the food above average.
Food and Beverage: Average, not overpriced, but located only in one spot in the gym.
Atmosphere: La Salle's atmosphere at Gola Arena is average at best and does not compare favorably to its Philly rivals. Definitely more of a high school gym vibe here as there are only seats along the sides of the court, no seats behind the baseline. There is not really much that stands out. Though the gym is relatively new (1998), it has no bells and whistles and feels like it was built on the cheap. They could have done better, I think, if the court was positioned differently.
Neighborhood: More than likely you'll be coming to see the game and getting back on the road to head back wherever you came from afterword. There is nothing noteworthy or worth sticking around for, as the neighborhood is pretty undesirable.
Fans: Fans vary here from laid back and passive to intense and angry. For most games, the student section is pretty disorganized and benign. For the Temple game (La Salle's North Philadelphia rival) the student section was packed and loud, but also uncreatively chanting vulgarities ("F*&k you Temple", clap clap clapclapclap) or throwing various objects, bottles, etc at the opponents section. Rivalry games seem to bring out the best, but mostly worst in the student section.
Access: La Salle is best accessed by Roosevelt Blvd (US-1) or Broad St and via some pretty sketchy areas. If not familiar with the area, definitely make sure you have some solid directions and you now where you are going. There is a free parking lot in front of the gym but it fills quickly and can be a mess to get out of after the game. There is another free campus lot across Wister St but it also can fill up during weekday games, though weekends seem to be fine. There is very limited on street parking and it is not advisable to venture more than a few blocks from the edge of campus. There is a subway stop at Broad and Olney, but this is not a good area and not something I'd want to try. Supposedly there is a free parking lot at the Shoppes at La Salle and a free shuttle though I've never tried it.
Once at Gola, there is only one way in and one way out at the south entrance to the gym, so it is a complete bottleneck/clusterf*^k when trying to leave at the end of the game.
Return on Investment: Seats start at $10 ($15 for Big 5 games), the cheapest ticket for any of the six college hoops programs in Philly. $15 will get you a "better" seat, although there are not really any bad seats here. Most seats are rollback bleachers, there are only a small seats with backs and I'd assume these are season ticket holders. Though I was not impressed by the venue or the atmosphere, the Explorers have rebounded on the court with a competitive team, so its at least a good product. Because the price of food and admission is low, and parking is free, it makes La Salle basketball worth going back to see again.
Extras: Extra points for the brand new video boards installed midway through this season. Due to the space confines, the boards are awkwardly placed, so when the action is going on, the boards show very useful stats (either players stats including points, rebounds, assists, or team stats including shooting %, free throw %, rebounds, etc.) I though this was pretty cool.
A bit of a drive through northwest Philly to get to the campus. Free parking at the Shoppes at La Salle, a 2-minute walk from the arena. Tickets are $15 or $20, but patient fans can find freebies out front. Not much else around, limited concessions, but check out the displays in the concession room for a bit of history. This school won the 1954 NCAA championship and featured Lionel Simmons back in the late 1980s.
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2628 South St
Philadelphia, PA 19146