Tom Gugliotta Exceeded Initial Expectations, But His Career Was Ultimately Filled With What Ifs

USA TODAY Sports

The summer of (sporadic) looks back at non-1983 N.C. State hoops history continues with the Googs installment.

Among N.C. State alums, only David Thompson averaged more points per game in the NBA than former lottery pick Tom Gugliotta, and only Kenny Carr pulled down more rebounds per game (by a scant 0.1 per game margin). Next to Thompson, "Googs" is arguably the best Pack pro of all time, yet in many ways Gugliotta's college and pro careers were both marked by disappointment.

Jim Valvano once remarked that he did not bring Vinny Del Negro to Raleigh because Del Negro was Italian, but rather because, "I'm Italian!" As the story goes, Valvano brought Googs to Raleigh because Frank Gugliotta, Jimmy V's long-time friend, pleaded with the Pack coach to give his boy a chance. As a freshman, Tom's performance might have strained Frank and V's relationship. On a loaded Pack team that featured Fire and Ice on the perimeter and future NBA forwards Chucky Brown and Brian Howard, Googs played just 171 minutes and managed a mere 2.7 points per game.

Gugliotta's freshman season ended in a defeat to #1 seed Georgetown in the sweet 16. (Relive the pain of the infamous Corchiani "travel" game here.) A Pack win over Mourning and Mutombo's Hoyas would have meant a fourth Elite Eight appearance of the decade and a momentous matchup with Duke; in retrospect, the loss was the beginning of the end of the Wolfpack's relevance on the national hoops stage.

The distraction of an NCAA investigation that would cost Valvano his job led to a disappointing 1989-90 season. A year after posting the best regular season record in the ACC, the Pack slumped to 18-12 overall and just 6-8 in conference play despite having Fire and Ice in the backcourt, Howard at small forward, and an improving Gugliotta at the power forward. The Pack missed the NCAA tournament, and though it may have been a lost season for the team, Googs emerged as a solid role player, scoring 11.1 points per game and averaging 6.9 rebounds per contest.

Before there was the annual Les Robinson Play-In Game, there was the Les Robinson's One Kind Of Good Year. It came in 1990-91 in Robinson's first season on the bench; it was the last season Fire and Ice would team with Googs. The Pack went 20-11 and made it back to the Big Dance but bowed out in the second round. All the program had to show for the Fire and Ice era was one Sweet 16, but Googs's game kept progressing. As a junior, he averaged 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

The following season, Googs spearheaded a pair of wins over rival North Carolina. The Pack poured in 99 points in both wins, and Googs had 36 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four steals, and two blocked shots in the 99-88 win in Raleigh. Unfortunately, sandwiched between those two wins was a nine-game losing streak. State finished a woeful 12-18 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first of a 10-year stretch of misery. It certainly was no fault of Tom Gugliotta, who averaged 22.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game as a senior. He was second in the league in scoring and first in rebounds; Googs was named to the all-ACC first team.

The skinny 6-6 unrecruited freshman from Huntington Station, NY, was a 6-9, 240-pounder by the time he graduated. He could be a bruiser on the interior, and his shooting touch for a big man drew comparisons to Larry Legend. His 40.8% career three-point accuracy is third best in Pack history and the 17th best mark in the ACC. The 22.5 points per game average from his senior season is the 8th-best single-season effort in school history. Googs is 14th all-time in scoring, ninth in rebounding, and sixth in steals.

Given his breakout senior season, it was no surprise that Googs heard his name called by the Washington Bullets Wizards with the sixth selection in the 1992 NBA draft. And I bet you forgot that his first eight years in the league looked like this:

Year

Points per Game

Rebounds per Game

92-93

14.7

9.6

93-94

17.1

9.3

94-95

12.7

7.4

95-96

16.2

8.8

96-97

20.6

8.7

97-98

20.1

8.7

98-99

17.0

8.9

99-00

13.7

7.9

Part of the reason you may have forgotten how good Googs was as a pro is because his last five years looked like this:

Year

Points per Game

Rebounds per Game

00-01

6.4

4.5

01-02

6.5

5.0

02-03

4.8

3.7

03-04

2.9

3.4

04-05

5.1

4.1

During the ‘97 season, Googs took the floor for the all-star game (the last N.C. State alum to do so) for the Western Conference alongside such stars as Payton, Garnett, Olajuwon, and Utah's duo of Stockton and Malone. He and Garnett, his Timberwolves teammate, were lifting Minnesota from the dregs of the league into playoff contention. Googs looked like he would be perennial all-star and even a potential hall of famer. So, what happened? Injuries. Injuries. A near-death experience. And more injuries.

He was having another all-star caliber year in ‘98 when surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle cost him half a season. After starting at least 63 games over his first five years in the league, Googs would never again start more than 54 games. He remained fairly productive when he was able to go, but as often as not Googs was relegated to towel waving. The most serious of his numerous injuries, a tear of the ACL, MCL, and PCL knee ligaments on March 10, 2000, has left him unable to play pickup games in his retirement.

But the injuries pale in comparison to the incident that nearly took Gugliotta's life. On December 17, 1999, Googs took GBL (short for gamma-Butyrolactone), an ingredient in a supplemental sleep aid. GBL also has such industrial uses as glue and paint remover; it's not something you want to put in your body. The GBL triggered a seizure, and Googs likely would have died if not for his wife's quick thinking. She called teammate Rex Chapman, who went back to the team bus and found Gugliotta's gym bag. The bag had remained on the bus after Googs collapsed, and in the bag was the offending product Googs had taken. The information about what Googs had taken was relayed to the ER doctors. His doctors later said that without receiving that information in a timely manner, Gugliotta would have died.

A number of other deaths had been attributed to GBL already, and the publicity of the Googs incident helped the FDA ban GBL for human consumption, though the drug, known as a coma in a bottle, remains popular on the street and has often been acquired illegally and mixed with alcohol to concoct a date-rape cocktail.

BTP faithful have been playing the "what if" game in the comments of this article about Dick Sheridan. A retrospective about Googs seems appropriately timed. What if Mourning had been whistled for his fifth foul? What if the NCAA hadn't run Valvano out of town? What if Googs would have had a healthy NBA career? Googs hung up the high tops for the golf spikes after a series of too-early exits from the NCAA tournament and just 12 playoff games in his NBA career. The skinny, unheralded kid from Huntington Station accomplished so much more in his career than anyone initially expected, but, in retrospect, he should have had much, much more. Though the 80+ million dollars he made in The League is probably some small consolation.

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