Someone to look up to

The 6-foot-11 Ricky Gallon spent time playing professional basketball, then came home to work at steering kids toward productive lives.

By null, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 25, 2003

BRANDON - The conversations usually go like this:

"Do you know Ricky Gallon?" someone asks the 6-foot-11, 270-pound giant. "Is that your son or brother?"

"No, that's me," the man says.

"The Ricky Gallon?" the parent asks, incredulous.

It's been a while since Gallon, 46, has thought of himself as the Ricky Gallon.

He was a star basketball player at Jefferson High School in Tampa, a starter on a Final Four team at the University of Louisville, and a professional basketball player for 16 years, in Europe and on some NBA practice squads.

These days, Gallon, who lives in Valrico, directs the 3-month-old Bill Carey Boys & Girls Club in Brandon. He works with 150 kids each day, sharing the lessons he learned through a lifetime of basketball and his own youth in the West Tampa Boys Club.

"He's a perfect role model," said Roy Opfer, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay. "When the kids are around Ricky, they don't swear, they don't fight. They very quickly want to be like Ricky."

Growing up, Gallon was taller than everyone else his age, so he hung out with older kids to fit in. He was a quiet, shy boy, and his parents thought the older kids would get him into trouble.

"A couple of times, things could have gotten pretty bad," Gallon. "But I had enough sense to know that this was something that I needed to get away from and not be bothered with."

The West Tampa Boys Club offered him a constructive outlet. A coach saw young Ricky playing basketball and asked if he'd like to come play at the club, with uniforms and rules.

"He would sit down with us and teach us about the rules of the game," he said. "He would throw in other things about life - getting along with each other, respecting yourself, respecting God."

Gallon went on to play at Jefferson High, graduating in 1974 as the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,156 points. But the hype around his game was already beginning to swallow him.

He once skipped practice after scoring 52 points in a game. His coach threw him off the team, and Gallon had to ask his teammates for forgiveness.

Then, as college neared and he was recruited by schools across the country, Gallon lost interest in classes. His decision to attend the University of Louisville under future Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum was seen as a stepping stone to the NBA.

"I was there to play basketball," he said. "I hadn't really looked at the education thing."

Gallon worked his way into Louisville's starting lineup his freshman season, and the Cardinals went all the way to the Final Four in San Diego.

After his senior season, Gallon stopped going to class and focused on preparing for the pros. He was selected in the third round of the 1978 NBA draft by the Buffalo Braves, which that year would become the San Diego Clippers.

He didn't make the final roster, but some contacts set him up with an Italian club, though he later played in Switzerland, Israel, Belgium, Sweden, France, Spain, Greece and Argentina.

He had tryouts with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks, but none took a chance on him.

"I look at it as being a positive experience," he says of his brush with the NBA. "I was there. I saw it. I was a part of it."

When he returned to Tampa Bay in 1994, Gallon stopped in to see his old coaches at the West Tampa Boys Club, who suggested he volunteer and share some of his life experience. Before long, he was in charge of all the club's sports programs.

Returning to the Boys & Girls Club has given him a chance to connect with kids like his former self and tell them about ways they can improve themselves.

Gallon never graduated from Louisville, but he has taken classes at the University of Tampa, and he says he's four credits shy of a degree. "I'm this close now, and I'm not going to give it up," he said.

Gallon says he tries to encourage kids who aspire to be professional athletes to get an education.

"You don't want to burst anybody's bubble, but you want to let them know that ... you have to be prepared to have something else to do," he said.

With nearly 200 boys and girls signed up for spring and summer programs, Gallon's Brandon club has been a huge success.

"We're already full now throughout the summer," he said. "We're starting to work on applications for the fall. It filled up overnight. It's incredible."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com

Ricky Gallon

NAME: Ricky Gallon

OCCUPATION: Director of the Bill Carey Boys & Girls Club in Brandon

HOME: Valrico

FAMILY: Wife, Kym, whom he met while playing basketball in Italy; son, Nikki, 14, a freshman at Brandon High School; daughter, Zoe, a fourth-grader at Yates Elementary

HEIGHT: 6'11"

HEIGHT CIRCA 1972, WITH FULL AFRO: "I must have been about 7'8", 7'9". It was one of those really high ones."

JEFFERSON MEMORIAL: Gallon's No. 22 jersey was retired by Jefferson High School.

CLASS OF '78: Gallon was drafted by the NBA in 1978, alongside all-stars like Larry Bird, Reggie Theus and Maurice Cheeks.

ADVICE FOR THE KIDS: "Get your education, no matter how long it takes."