#182 Neal Walk

Neal Walk

(1948 - )


Neal Walk (born July 29, 1948 in Cleveland, Ohio) is a former professional basketball player who played from 1969 to 1974 for the Phoenix Suns, was traded to the then New Orleans (now Utah) Jazz and subsequently traded to the New York Knicks, where he played for 2 seasons. Afterward, he went to play in Italy (Venice and Milano) after which, he went on to become a star in Israel.

Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is having been drafted 2nd overall in the 1969 NBA Draft by the Suns, after they lost a coin flip with Milwaukee Bucks for the number one pick. Milwaukee chose basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the first pick.

In 1988, it was discovered that he had a benign tumor enveloping his spine. Following surgery, Walk was left in a wheelchair, from which he played wheelchair basketball for the L.A.-Phoenix Samaritans. In 1990, Neal Walk was honored at the White House by President George H. W. Bush as the "Wheelchair Athlete of The Year".

He has since gone on to work for the Suns in their Community Affairs department.

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"Profile in courage: Second-choice draft pick becomes inspirational speaker, P.R. superstar"

By Marshall Terrill

Former Phoenix Suns player Neal Walk works in the community relations department of the Suns' organization and gives inspirational talks from a wheelchair - a device that he hopes to one day no longer need.

But whatever the future holds for him, he likely will be forever linked in the minds of sports fans with the infamous coin toss that Jerry Colangelo lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 draft for the rights to Lew Alcindor - who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabaar.

Phoenix chose Neal Walk, a two-time All-American from the University of Florida.

"I was looked upon by the media as the booby prize," Walk says, mincing no words in a recent interview, "but they never mention the 1,000 rebounds I grabbed in a season."

Although the Bucks went on to win a championship just two years later, Walk proved to be a formidable foe on the hardwood. "I might not have been able to block shots like Jabaar, but I could take a charge," he says. "I might not have been able to score 30 points a game, but I could set a pick or grab a rebound."

Perhaps it was the booby prize label that made Walk work that much harder to become arguably the best center in the Suns' 31-year history.

Says Colangelo in a recent interview: "Through many hours of hard work and dedication, Neal Walk became a fine NBA center, but unfortunately, he lived in the shadow of that infamous coin flip, which took away from the many great things he did on the court. Neal never really got his due as a player, but I've never seen another person with the work ethic that Neal had coming into the league."

Neal Walk was born in 1948 in Brooklyn, N.Y. Both of his parents were descendants of Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. His early recollections of New York are fond ones.

"New York was a melting pot like any other big city. I learned to get along with all types of ethnic groups," he says today of his childhood. "I don't recall running into any blatant anti-Semitism. I did get the occasional 'Jew Boy,' comments, but nothing that scarred me for life."

When Walk was 6, his father, a salesman, packed up the family and headed to Miami Beach, Fla. "Florida was nicer than Brooklyn, but again, it was another melting pot. Most of my neighbors were Jewish, but we also had Puerto Rican and Cuban neighbors. They were good people. No complaints," recalls Walk.

"However, the Jews stood out just a little bit from the others. For instance, we didn't wear white socks with our dress pants, and our pants were not cuffed, but pegged - subtle differences here and there."

Miami Beach in the '50s wasn't exactly a breeding ground for basketball players, but Walk loved to play the game after school everyday. "I wasn't so great at first," Walk admitted. "In fact, I was cut from the eighth grade team."

The basketball coach instructed Walk to stick to the marching band, but Walk worked harder on his game and made his freshman high school team the next year.

"I divided my time playing the trombone in the marching band and basketball. I loved doing both. I still have my trombone," he says.

By his senior year in high school, Walk's play and his 6-foot-10 frame began gaining him some serious attention.

When three universities offered him a full scholarship, he chose the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.

Walk gained national attention in his junior year at Florida when he became the only player in college to land in the top spot in both scoring and rebounding. By the end of his four-year stay, Walk had been two-time All-American and obtained a bachelor's degree in communications.

The land of giants

When Walk's fate was sealed by the coin toss, he came to the Phoenix Suns with one goal in mind - to be the team's starting center. After a fine rookie season, Walk took over that starting position and became an integral part of a Suns team that included playground legend Connie Hawkins, workhorse Dick Van Arsdale, bruiser Paul Silas and scoring machine Gail Goodrich.

Not only did Walk's offensive game improve (to averaging 17 points a game), but he was given the task of guarding some of the biggest and best centers the game has ever produced.

"I covered them all," says Walk. "Wilt (Chamberlain), Kareem, Willis Reed, Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens, Walt Bellamy, Bill Walton, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes."

Asked who was the toughest to guard, Walk readily answers, "They were all tough. I had to come ready to play every night. Each guy was so good, it's hard to pick the best."

Two years ago, the NBA named their best 50 players of all-time; each of the nine players listed by Walk was named to that prestigious list.

In the 1972-1973 season, Walk enjoyed his finest year as a pro, averaging 20.2 points and 12 rebounds a game. Then on Sept. 14, 1974, in what Jerry Colangelo calls, "the biggest trade we have ever consummated," the Suns sent Walk and a 1975 second round draft pick to the then-New Orleans Jazz for forward Curtis Perry, center Dennis Awtry, guard Nate Hawthorne and a 1976 first round draft choice.

"I think in retrospect, Jerry (Colangelo) made the right move in trading me," Walk admits now, noting the strange hippie phase he was going through, during which he embraced Far East religions. "When your center is quoting Lao Tzu and 'The Book of Changes' and is eating sprouts for breakfast instead of furniture, it's time to make a change."

Walk had played 408 games in Phoenix in five seasons for the Suns and still ranks third on the Suns' all-time rebound list with 3,637. After 31 years, Walk is the only Suns center ever to pull down more than 1,000 rebounds in a season.

Searching for answers

Walk played only 37 games for the Jazz before being traded to the New York Knicks, where he remained through the 1976-77 season.

"After I left New York, I got an offer from the Cannon Corporation to play basketball for their team in Venice, Italy," Walk says, "and I thought it would be a nice break from the NBA."

Walk spent a full year in Italy, playing ball, traveling and touring the country. He lived across the canal from the Modern Art Museum in Venice and fell in love with the city.

"What's not to love?" Walk poses. "It was a beautiful city with spiritual echoes all around it. I spent a lot of time walking around, visiting museums and art galleries, drinking espresso and reading books. I must have read 60 books that year."

From Italy, Walk accepted an offer to play in Israel, where he reconnected once again with his Jewish roots. He stayed for three years.

"Israel was something else," Walk says, playfully raising an eyebrow. "It's a beautiful place, kind of a combination of Arizona and Florida mixed. The architecture and the people were also beautiful. They loved to celebrate."

He adds, "I think that experience in Israel made me realize that I was happy to have the same blood as these people."

Along with the beauty, however, Walk saw ugliness as well. "It's the home of three great religions, and I lived in this little pocket of the world where there was a lot of hatred. Guards with machine guns walked around the whole time, and I wasn't used to that way of life."

In 1981, Walk returned to the United States where he resigned himself to the fact that his playing days were over.

Tragedy strikes

In the spring of 1987, Neal Walk woke up one morning in his Phoenix home to discover he couldn't stand up straight without holding on to something to steady himself. When he tried to walk, his legs dragged. Doctors discovered a tumor in his spinal cord and recommended immediate surgery.

"I knew the risk involved in the removal of the tumor," Walk says. "I was told there was a tumor inside of my spinal cord, pushing it apart. I was given all of the possible scenarios of surgery, and I was told it was a possibility I might end up in a wheelchair. But I was also told I might die if I didn't get the tumor removed."

Walk opted for surgery, and when he awoke, he was given the news: The surgery did indeed cause the loss of use in his legs.

"I wasn't real pleased about it, but I never contemplated suicide or anything like that. Yes, it was a lot to lose, but it's not the major point of a person," he says. "Legs are like a car: they get you from point A to point B, but then again, prayer and meditation gets you from point A to point B. You can still have an affect on the world through your presence, your essence, your mind, your heart. Legs would be cool, but ... ."

When the question of how he copes arises, Walk instantly knocks the use of the word. "I don't like the word 'cope,' he says. " 'Cope' has a negative connotation that I don't like. 'Cope.' It's like saying, 'This is a really crappy situation and I'm going to make the best of it.' ... I'd like to think of myself as someone who deals aggressively and assertively with not being able to walk. I'm not convinced yet I'm handicapped or disabled. Disabled is a funky, funky word. Anything you get stuck in your mind, you'll be. Me, I'm a wheelchair user."

Back with the Suns

A year after first being confined to a wheelchair, Neal Walk bumped into Jerry Colangelo in the parking lot of the former Valley of Sun Jewish Community Center, where the Suns were working out. The two men had not seen each other in some time, and Colangelo was taken aback. Walk didn't greet him with open arms, either. The wounds from being traded had not quite healed.

Colangelo remembers, "My impression was that Neal was down on his luck and he didn't feel like anybody cared. I saw a way to extend some help and give him dignity again."

A week later, Colangelo offered Walk a job with the Suns, working in their community relations department. Walk today often gives speeches around the Valley through Suns Charities, inspiring young and old alike.

Colangelo proudly boasts, "I get letters from groups that he has talked to saying he's the best speaker they've ever had - that he has a great motivational message."

"I love my job," Walk says. "The Suns have provided me with a great way to rehabilitate myself by getting out in front of people."

On June 15, 1990, Walk was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at a banquet in Irvine, Calif., sponsored by the American Friends of the Hebrew University, for his collegiate and professional contribution to the sport of basketball.

Today, Walk remains with the Suns in the community relations department and is hopeful that one day, he will walk again.

"I liken my situation now to being someone in the second-quarter," Walk says. "The half-time buzzer hasn't sounded, and I have the rest of my life to get out of this chair."

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