TRENTON, N.J. – With one of his teammates at the free-throw line cementing Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill's 73-64 victory over Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick Saturday night at the Sovereign Bank Arena, Keith Gallon walked around midcourt, bellowing out a message for those along press row and the fans in general.
"Oak Hill [is] coming for the No. 1 spot," said the Oklahoma-bound Gallon, who finished with nine points and 12 rebounds as Oak Hill, No. 3 in the RivalsHigh 100, improved to 34-0 by downing the No. 4 Celtics (20-3).
Gallon, a 6-foot-9, 290-pounder nicknamed "Tiny," has been a big factor for the Warriors.
"He's lost about 50 pounds," Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said of Gallon. "He's more agile. He runs the floor better. He gets off his feet better, and his attitude is probably the main thing. He's got a much better attitude."
Gallon, the No. 5 center in the 2009 class who is averaging 16.3 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, credits his physical and mental turnaround to his summer workouts at Rice University in his native Houston with Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Wilcox and former NBA coach John Lucas.
"I can see myself in the future being as good as I want to be if I can dedicate myself," Gallon said. "I talked to Chris Wilcox, I talked to Shaquille O'Neal and John Lucas. I'm working with John Lucas in the summer. They talked to me every time there, and said if I get right I can be one of those players."
A year ago, when Gallon teamed with point guard Brandon Jennings, Smith was not at all pleased with Gallon's weight (he ballooned to 350 pounds) or his attitude toward school.
"I was just a hothead in class, and I wasn't doing right and I wasn't doing stuff with my body," Gallon said of last year's experience.
After the season, Smith publicly stated that Gallon would not return to the school. Gallon visited a couple of other schools and strongly considered Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., or playing with John Wall, the No. 1 player in the 2009 class, at Raleigh (N.C.) Word of God.
"I just didn't feel the love with the coaches and stuff, and Coach Smith is like another father to me, so I felt like I just wanted to play for him," Gallon said.
So, just before school began in the fall, Gallon called up Smith and said, "Can I come talk to you? I'll be dedicated to losing weight and getting my grades right."
Smith's response: "You can come talk to me. I doubt it will change my mind."
Three days before school was to begin, Gallon and his mother arrived for the meeting with Smith and Oak Hill administrators, "and he was basically begging for a second chance," Smith said. "We laid some ground rules about academics and attitude, and we let him come back."
Gallon said playing against O'Neal in the summer really triggered a turnaround in his mentality. O'Neal noticed how well Gallon moved and encouraged him to drop more weight.
"After I played against him, that's when he really started talking to me," Gallon said. "He's a big dude."
Gallon has radically changed his diet since last year, replacing fried foods, soda and sweets with grilled chicken salads and water. He runs hard in practice and spends additional time in the weight room.
"I lost a lot of weight," he said. "And I run. I don't eat a lot of bad food."
Lucas, who coached the Spurs, 76ers and Cavaliers, has been impressed with Gallon's work ethic and dedication, pointing out that he looked fitter during his return to Houston over Christmas break than he did during the summer workouts.
"The level of commitment from early AAU ball to Christmas had completely changed," Lucas said. "It's a 100 percent turnaround. I think he believes that basketball can not only be fun but also can be a business for him.
"If he continues to work hard and stay healthy, I think he has a chance to be a lottery pick. He's gotten in better and better shape. He's lost weight and now he's got to turn that into strength. He's got some of the quickest hands and feet that I've seen."
Gallon's effort in the classroom also has improved.
"He's making better decisions. He realizes that the classroom is important," Smith said. "I don't see any way he won't qualify now. Last year, I wouldn't have given him a snowball's chance to qualify."
In November, Gallon signed to play for Jeff Capel at Oklahoma, choosing the Sooners over Mississippi State and California.
If 6-10 sophomore Blake Griffin becomes the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, Oklahoma can rest somewhat easier knowing it's bringing in a recruiting class that includes Gallon and 6-8 Andrew Fitzgerald of Baltimore, who is No. 13 among centers.
"Gallon brings size, skill, understanding how to play basketball," Capel said. "He can score it. He can shoot it. He can pass it.
"He's a really skilled guy and if he comes in here and really gets after working with our strength coach, then he can be very successful."
Gallon's dreams are big. He can see himself following in Griffin's immense footsteps.
"I see what Blake Griffin is doing, so I feel like I can do the same thing," Gallon said. "I think I got everything that a basketball player needs, but I need to just keep working on my body and conditioning."