Keith Gallon has turned it around to emerge as a potential star.
Very little about Keith “Tiny” Gallon makes sense. For starters there’s the nickname. Given to him by an AAU coach in Houston when he was a 6-6, 340-pound kid just past his 14th birthday, the name was meant to disguise him as guard on his team’s roster and catch opponents by surprise when they showed up on game day. The nickname has stuck and still proves to be an oxymoron as nothing about Gallon, frame, game, or persona, is “Tiny.”
There’s the game. Now, at a svelte 6-9, 290-pounds, Gallon may be the most versatile player his size that the college game has seen in a decade. Blessed with quick feet, soft hands and a shooting touch that makes him a consistent perimeter threat, the Oklahoma recruit looks like he stole half of his moves from a player half his size. Oklahoma head coach Jeff Capel has already told the McDonald’s All-American that when he finds himself covered by slower big men to take his defenders out on the wing where he can beat them off the dribble. Imagine that, the biggest man on the floor draining threes and burning opponents on the bounce.
Then there’s the meeting that took place at the end of last summer between Gallon, his mother, Oak Hill Academy head coach Steve Smith and the school’s president Dr. Michael Groves. Just eight months before “Tiny” would take the floor at the BankUnited Center in Miami for the McDonald’s All-American Game, he found himself trying to talk his way back into the school he had left his Houston home to attend just one year prior.
“At one point in the summer I had talked to his mother and I informed Keith that I wasn’t going to allow him to come back to Oak Hill,” Smith said. “Some kids have discipline and some kids don’t; he didn’t have very much self discipline to begin with.”
“He’s a real good kid, he isn’t into anything bad, he was just lazy, lazy with his body and in the classroom. That’s why he got overweight and that’s why he made such bad grades.”
Gallon had made the decision to transfer to Oak Hill after his sophomore year of high school to help control the very problems he struggled with during his junior season. As an overweight product in his home of Houston, it was clear to see that the youngster had a tremendous amount of potential, but his immense size – at points as much as 350 pounds – was preventing him from performing at optimal levels on the court. Gallon was also struggling to maintain his academic standing in the classroom, an issue that would surely have prevented a large number of schools from recruiting him heavily.
It was then that Gallon made the decision to head east to Mouth of Wilson, Virginia to attend the legendary prep school. He would be in for a culture shock though when he arrived on campus for the start of classes in September of 2007.
“I had heard about Oak Hill because of guys like Carmelo [Anthony] and Jerry Stackhouse who had gone there, but I always thought it was just a basketball school,” Gallon says. “What a lot of people don’t know is that you have to go up there and work; you get isolated from your family and everyone.
“There’s nothing up there but grades and basketball.”
Behind All-American guard Brandon Jennings, Oak Hill rolled to a 34-4 record and a No. 8 national ranking in Gallons first season in the program. The big man posted strong averages of 10 points and 13 rebounds that drew more than a few glances from major college programs, but he was still struggling with his weight and grades. Coach Smith “cracked the whip” on Gallon to get him to turn the corner on the court and in the classroom, but it was a year of ups and downs for the newest addition to the Warriors gifted roster.
That set up the phone call that Smith made during the summer after Gallon’s junior year in which he informed his top returning player that he would not be allowed back for the upcoming season. At the time Gallon has been wrestling with the idea of not returning to Oak Hill himself, unable to deal with the isolation that the school provided and the strict rules governing academic efforts. In the weeks leading up to his meeting with Smith and Groves, Gallon paid visits to several prep schools in North Carolina, including the famed Mount Zion Christian Academy. After finding that none of the other schools appealed to him like Oak Hill had, he and his mother arranged the meeting to get him back into the program.
Smith relented and allowed his star big man to return for the fall, but not before Gallon agreed to step up his efforts in the gym and to follow a grueling academic schedule.
“I didn’t want him to come to Oak Hill just to be a basketball player and then wind up at a junior college somewhere, that’s not what we’re all about,” Smith says. “He had to go to tutoring every day after school all year. He had to go to the resource center and study hall until dinner every day, there were no ifs ands or buts. I didn’t care if he got straight As in his classes, he was going.
“He did everything he was told to do, he was required to do it all the way up until the end of final exams in May and that’s something he didn’t do as a junior.”
The hard work paid major dividends. Gallon lost over 60 pounds, improved his grades to meet NCAA requirements and the offers came rolling in. Among others, Georgetown, Arizona, Cal, Tennessee and USC offered scholarships, but the idea of being a Sooner appealed to Gallon more than anything else. Having been friends with OU guard Willie Warren since his freshman year of high school and hitting it off with Coach Capel during his official visit proved to be a winning combination that sealed the deal on Gallons commitment to the school. Daily phone conversations with another Oklahoma big man only convinced him further that that Norman was the place he wanted to spend his college years.
“I talked with Blake Griffin almost every day and I saw how Coach Capel let him play, so I decided that would be good for me,” Gallon says.
Now that Griffin has departed as the number one overall pick in the NBA Draft and Gallon has been on campus for five weeks taking summer classes, the freshman has already heard talk about the shoes he has to fill. He has been assigned number 24 for the upcoming season, one digit higher than Griffin wore during his days in the Big 12, a fact that not surprisingly has prompted criticism.
“People are already saying, oh he thinks he’s better than Blake,” Gallon says. “There’s a lot of stuff that I’m going to be expected to do, but I know I just have to come in, contribute, and try to fill those shoes.”
While no one is expecting Gallon to put up Griffin-esque numbers from day one, he is the crown jewel of a talented recruiting class the includes All-American point guard Tommy Mason-Griffin and another skilled big man in Andrew Fitzgerald.
Capel has told Gallon that his primary responsibility next season will be to rebound; the points will come along with that. He has stressed to the freshman though that he should take advantage of the mismatches he is likely to be faced with on a nightly basis. Having worked with Gallon for the last two years at Oak Hill, Steve Smith is confident that the brutal schedule of elite competition the big man has faced will allow him to be an impact player in the Big 12.
“He’s a guy that can have an impact right away as a freshman,” Smith says. “Now is he going to be a Kevin Durant or a Michael Beasley in the Big 12 as a freshman? I don’t know, that’s asking a lot out of him, but I figure he can be a major contributor.
“He has two years at Oak Hill and played an unbelievable schedule. I think having played the type of competition that we played during his time here it should allow him to get a good jump off at the start of the season.”
Smith says he hasn’t talked much with Gallon since he graduated in May, but the coach believes his latest star pupil is finally on a path that will take him far, both on and off the court. For Gallon’s part he has been hard at work preparing for the start of the school year this fall. He recently started his second session of summer classes and has been partaking in 6 a.m. weight lifting sessions with his new teammates.
Gallon is well aware that this year’s Oklahoma team has a lot to live up to, with last season’s group putting together a 30-6 record – the third-highest win total in school history – on their way to an Elite Eight appearance. With expectations high in Norman for the upcoming season, Gallon is taking a practical approach to his freshman season with the Sooners.
“It’s going to be a hard, they had a great record last year, but we’re going to try and have more wins than losses in the upcoming season.”
It’s safe to say that the one they call “Tiny” has been finishing with plenty more wins than losses as of late.