neilwalk

Disappointment, which hung in the air like the city’s clinging heat, awaited Neal Walk in Phoenix.

It was March 19, 1969, and the Phoenix Suns had just lost a coin toss with the Milwaukee Bucks for the first selection—or to see what team would build a glittering future with UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)—in the upcoming NBA Draft.

While the Bucks and their fans rejoiced, a dazed Jerry Colangelo drove the streets of Phoenix for hours.

The Suns general manager was crushed. His team, however, still needed a center. Nearly three weeks later the Suns chose Walk, a 6-10 senior from the University of Florida. Few were satisfied. “There was quite a drop off between the first and second player picked in the annual National Basketball Association Draft,” reported United Press International immediately after Walk was drafted. Even though Walk was a “very, very good player,” says Paul Silas, Walk’s Suns teammate from 1969-72, “everyone was coming at him.”

(Years later, as head coach of the San Diego Clippers, Silas would invite his former teammate for a tryout.)

Walk, who left the NBA in 1977 before playing internationally for several years, was branded as the second choice. Now, he’s bar trivia, a permanent target for the sports-loving moron who refuses to think and loves to talk.

Hey, Neal, what was it like to be the Suns’ booby prize?

Walk has heard some variation of that for years, even when he rejoined the Suns in the 1980s and did speaking engagements. Now 66, he doesn’t mind if they talk. He knows the truth isn’t the quickly assembled legacy of others. There’s no shame being second to Kareem. “It’s quite a gap,” he admits. Anybody was going to look like a YMCA klutz against the unstoppable force who won three NCAA Championships, whose release point on that skyhook had him high-fiving a million angels. And that’s before the six NBA Championships, six MVP awards and that great cameo in Airplane!

Basketball allowed Walk to travel the world—gambling with Connie Hawkins in Venice; working as a deck hand on a boat bringing goods from the Netherlands to the Dutch Antilles. “Most of the time I hung with the Rastafarians down in their bunks,” Walk recalls. “I learned a lot about reggae—and a few other things.”

Really, he is proud of his pro career. How many guys grab 1,000 rebounds in a season? How many men can say they held their own against Unseld and Chamberlain and Thurmond, players whose greatness doesn’t require a full name?

Walk is proud that he evolved as a person. He gave up pork, did yoga, got into Eastern thought and philosophy. Yes, basketball dropped on his list of priorities. But he had fun. Silas recalls a pre-game chat when Walk said that playing mattered more than winning. “That just blew me away,” says Silas, who won three Championships as a player. Walk sought not to be defined by the game, which is partially why he changed his name to Joshua Hawk while on a vision quest in the tiny Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius.

“This was about me trying to separate myself, the truth of who I was in my soul,” he says, “from that which was just a basketball player.”

It’s easy to represent Walk with a coin toss, when his life—like everyone else’s—is spiraling toward a resolution. A tumor in his spine required surgery that led to paralysis, which has forced Walk to use a wheelchair for more than 25 years, and he’s been honored and featured as an inspirational figure more times than he can count, but he’s never become the “wheelchair guy.”

Walk considers going from pro athlete to bound in a wheelchair a gift from the universe. “I’m living two lives in one,” he says.

***

Even though he was no Alcindor, the Suns hardly drafted a slouch in Walk. The Miami Beach (FL) High product was a polished, NBA-ready player and a two-time All-American at Florida. Forty-five years after his last game as a Gator, a period of time that has seen UF win two National Championships and produce a gang of NBA players, Walk still holds school records for most rebounds in a game (31) and a half (22); most rebounds, career (1,181); most rebounds, season (494); most rebounds per game, season (19.8); most rebounds per game, career (15.3); free throws made (201) and attempted (278), season; most 30-point games, career (15); highest scoring average, career (20.8).

When Walk arrived in Gainesville from Miami Beach, some observers didn’t expect much. “He was thin, probably 200 pounds, and wasn’t very strong,” says Bill Koss, the longtime Gators basketball analyst and broadcaster, who was then a volunteer assistant coach. “He was considered to be a project. If you were to go back, he was one of those kids who had potential but wasn’t considered a big recruit.”

Gator forward Andy Owens, who played against Walk in high school, disagrees. “He was one of the most highly sought after prospects in Florida,” says Owens, adding that even on the freshman team, “You could tell from day one that Neal was going to be the best big man Florida ever had.” Koss remembers new coach Tommy Bartlett’s reaction when seeing Walk for the first time: “He’s going to be an All-American.”

Walk’s path toward that designation featured getting cut as an eighth-grader—the coach advising Walk to go back to band—before making the team in the ninth grade. Then he barely played. “The uniform was as fresh at the end of the year as when I first put it on,” Walk jokes. He used the coach as motivation to improve. “Everything was a one-year progression,” he says. That included making junior varsity, then starting for the varsity team, which won the city championship his senior year. The college letters poured in, but Walk only visited two schools: Florida and Florida State.

Walk dug the UF campus and liked the people there, so he went 300 miles north to Gainesville. While starring on Florida’s 17-1 freshman team, Walk practiced with the varsity, regularly facing big men Jeff Ramsey and Gary Keller. Ramsey later signed with the American Basketball Association’s Pittsburgh Pipers; Keller played two years in the ABA. “Jeff was long and he could play defense,” Keller says. “I’m not sure if I helped.”

Assistant coach Dick Davis then worked with Walk on developing a big man’s game. “We had to stay on him about being aggressive and getting rebounds and shooting hooks and he did,” Davis says. “He worked really, really hard. He became one of our best players. By the end of his sophomore season, he had picked up so much; he was hard to guard.”

Between Walk’s sophomore and junior seasons, Koss saw the maturity surface. That summer, Walk worked at a camp in the Catskills where he played ball at lunch and after dinner. A pair of chairs provided the foundation for endless sets of dips and push-ups. He used dumbbells. “I was eating like a horse and working [out],” Walk says, “so I came back to school, I was a little too heavy.” He would lose the extra weight. For the next two years, only his numbers were huge.

In his first four games, Walk averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds on his way to 26.5 points and 19.8 rebounds a game for the year. That’s when the media attention started. Walk initially dismissed it: “Statistics are very misleading, I’m sure you know.” But when his conference rival, the University of Tennessee’s Tom Boerwinkle, was drafted fourth overall by the Bulls in 1968, Walk began to think differently.

“I had thought he was a second-round pick,” Walk says. “But the thing that struck me was I had played really well against this guy and he couldn’t keep me out of my game. So when he got drafted, [I thought] maybe I have a shot of getting drafted, too.” He made his final argument in 1968-69 by averaging 24 points and 17.8 rebounds a game.

“His goal was to play professional basketball,” says Owens of Walk. “That’s always what he was angling for.”

Walk lacked the dynamic physical tools that usually define today’s Lottery picks. “He couldn’t jump,” says Florida teammate Mike McGinnis. “He wasn’t a great athlete,” adds Silas. “Neal was not particularly fast and not a great jumper,” Owens says.

Take a play off against him, though, and you were toast. “You wouldn’t even try,” says Perry Wallace, an all-SEC forward at Vanderbilt who faced Walk regularly. “He was alert, focused, sharp. And his team was smart enough to look for him. You couldn’t let down the whole time you were playing him, because he was always looking for openings and possibilities.”

Walk’s mobility and footwork—Koss remembers Walk doing slide drills for hours on end—allowed him to trap on defense and then swarm for a rebound, Davis recalls. Or, more accurately, rebounds. “He got the damn ball,” says McGinnis. “He had position. He had timing. He had the ability to box out…I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but now…wow.”

And he had fantastic hands. Owens, even today, can see Walk’s “long, skinny fingers tipping the ball” before cradling it for another rebound. “It was uncanny,” he says.

Wallace, the second-leading rebounder in Vanderbilt history, could leap higher than Walk, but when the latter established rebounding position, “It was all over,” Wallace says. “All you could do was foul him.”

On offense, Walk was neither a clod nor a brute. “Neal had a level of mobility and skill development that was a lot further along than guys at 6-10, 6-11,” says Terry Driscoll, the former Boston College star and fourth overall pick of the 1969 Draft .

Walk’s game featured a hook shot (which he could take with either hand), and a killer 10-foot baseline shot, says Koss. You can add a two to that number, according to McGinnis, who remembers Walk nailing one-handed push shots from what was three-point range. Those damned intangibles are what got to Wallace; how well Walk moved without the ball, how he would set a pick and roll to the best spot. “He was smart about the choice of shot, and when he needed to muscle in down low or fade away with the shot.”

So Walk was definitely pro material. And he had options, including one that might have allowed others to not nail him in Abdul-Jabbar’s shadow.

The ABA’s Carolina Cougars also drafted Walk, but the contract—Walk remembers it being for $1.7 million—was a Rube Goldberg device on paper that featured bonuses and perks like 12 chicken franchises and tickets for his parents. “Without all the other junk,” Walk says, “it was meager money.”

Plus, he deemed the league gimmicky with its bikini-wearing cheerleaders and signature red, white and blue ball. “I didn’t like the ball,” he says. “I didn’t like shooting it, touching it. I didn’t even like watching it rotate.”

Bartlett, according to Walk, thought the ABA was a better fit and urged his star to consider the rebel league. Walk declined: “I kind of threw an expletive at him, and said, ‘I believe I’m going to go try my hand against the best.’” (Bartlett, reached at his home in Chattanooga, TN, said he did not recall the conversation.)

“I would do it again,” Walk says. “I’d put in the work. I had a great time. It was great playing against guys I’d watched on TV, you know, Chamberlain, Robertson, West. To meet these guys, actually be on the floor with them—it was a thrill.”

The same way others at the University of Florida felt about playing with Walk. “Something I’ll always remember throughout my life was the opportunity to play with Neal,” says Owens. “At the time, it was nothing special,” McGinnis says. Now, “I look back and think he was a superstar.”

That’s the definition of Neal Walk, basketball player, that’s too often lost in the rush to the same old punch line. He is the University of Florida’s first basketball All-American and the only player to have his number retired. He’s a legend who brought pride to a sport that was a poor relation to football.

How’s this for a flip side to that coin: There are places where Neal Walk is celebrated for being Neal Walk.

Pete Croatto is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @PeteCroatto.