'Coach Rick' cherishes his new life

Ricky Gallon played in the Final Four 30 years ago today. After a worldwide pro career, the Bill Carey Boys & Girls Club is his new arena.

Published March 29, 2005

BRANDON - Ricky Gallon, wearing jean shorts, white basketball shoes and a blue T-shirt, walks toward the game room at the Bill Carey Boys & Girls Club when two small children rush through the entrance then dart past - and beneath - him.

"Hey, hey ... stop running," the 6-foot-11 Gallon tells them. "Walk fast. Don't run."

They stop for a moment then walk away. Moments later, however, they return and are at it again, this time moving even faster.

Gallon shakes his head.

"Okay, I want you in that corner," he says to one before telling the other, "And you're in timeout."

Around here, Gallon runs the show.

As the club's director, he oversees a staff of eight. The club accommodates about 150 children during weekdays. Most of them are half the size of the man known by many as Coach Rick, who not long ago was perhaps the bay area's best known basketball star.

Gallon was a high school legend at Jefferson, a starter at Louisville and 30 years ago today, played in the Final Four.

"They don't know about my past," Gallon said of the children with whom he works. "They just know I'm tall."

As a teenager, Gallon wasn't just tall, he was good. While a senior at Jefferson, the West Tampa native was among the country's most heralded basketball players. An imposing center, Gallon finished his prep career with 1,156 points and was in the middle of a recruiting tug of war among schools such as Florida, Florida State, Marquette and Louisville.

"Back then, you could visit as many schools as you wanted," Gallon, 48, said. "So I went to like nine or 10 - all paid for. They'd pull up and pick you up in a nice car. And you'd get to the hotel, and your name would be on the letter board."

Gallon's memories of college are vivid.

Among those that stand out is his first day at practice under then-coach Denny Crum. Gallon chose Louisville largely because of Crum, who played two seasons at UCLA under legendary coach John Wooden. Wooden was known for his Pyramid of Success, a building block theory by which everything started from the ground up. Crum worked with the same premise.

"We were all shooting around, and Coach Crum called us over," Gallon said. "He showed us how to put our socks on and tie our shoes."

Gallon, only 17 when his college career began, opened the season on the bench as Crum slowly worked him onto the floor. He was starting by midseason.

In the NCAA Tournament, then comprising 32 teams, the Cardinals made their way to the Final Four with victories over Rutgers, Cincinnati and Maryland. After beating the Terrapins in the Midwest Region final in Las Cruces, N.M., Gallon, who turned 18 three days before the tournament began, and his teammates celebrated by cutting down the nets.

Final Four participants were given numerous gifts, including a gold watch Gallon's father, Robert, still has.

The game, of course, was different. Players were not allowed to dunk. There was no shot clock and no 3-point line.

At the Final Four in San Diego, Louisville had two things on its mind: getting past Wooden's Bruins and beating hated Kentucky in the final. Everything seemed to be falling into place until, just as the national semifinal began, the public address announcer told the crowd Wooden would retire at season's end.

"The place just went silent," Gallon said.

UCLA won 75-74 in overtime.

With family and friends in Tampa watching on TV, Gallon came off the bench and played 11 minutes. He was held to zero points and two rebounds.

"We were just really bummed," Gallon said. "But it was a fantastic experience. The whole thing was phenomenal."

Three years later, Gallon was ready for the NBA.

Or so he thought.

After a productive stint with the Cardinals, Gallon began to focus on a professional career. School, he thought, was unimportant. The Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) selected him in the third round, but he was cut days before the season began.

"I was devastated," he said.

Gallon headed back to Louisville to hone his skills then went overseas. He figured he would play in Europe for a couple of seasons then return to the United States.

Gallon returned for two more NBA tryouts, but neither worked out. For the sake of stability, he decided to stay in Europe. He remained there for 17 years.

He played in France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Russia, Spain and Yugoslavia. While in Italy, he met his wife, Kym, at the movies.

He learned to speak French, Italian and Spanish.

He saw the world.

He became the father of two.

"I could have played there until I was 50," Gallon said.

He didn't, Gallon says, because, simply put, he missed home.

In 1994, Gallon, Kym, their son Nikki and daughter Zoe moved to Valrico, where Gallon began a new chapter in his life and later began tending to unfinished business.

Not long after retuning to Hillsborough County, Gallon visited some of his old coaches and friends at the West Tampa Boys Club, where he learned the game. Before long, he was working for Tampa's Ponce de Leon Boys and Girls Club, and in 2003, he became director at the newly opened Bill Carey Boys & Girls Club. Working with children replaced basketball as his passion in life.

"I love what I'm doing," Gallon said.

In Gallon's office, one finds pictures only of his family.

"He doesn't really talk about (basketball)," said Nikki, a 16-year-old junior at Brandon.

Gallon would rather talk about school.

Today, he preaches the virtues of a good education. And now more than ever, Gallon realizes how special that can be. After 21 years, he returned to college in 1999, working toward a degree in sociology at Tampa.

"School just wasn't a priority (at Louisville)," Gallon said. "But I always told my mother I would get my degree."

UT didn't accept many of his credits from Louisville, but Gallon wasn't deterred. He split time between class and work and last December finally graduated.

"We were so proud and happy for him," said Zoe, 12. "I have so much respect that he went back."

With Louisville again in the Final Four, Gallon is pulling hard for the Cardinals to accomplish what he and his teammates could not. But while the championship ring might have eluded him, today he proudly wears the one he got for graduating.