Neal Walk: Standing Tall
In the paint and in his wheelchair, Neal Walk always faced challenges head on
By Jeff Munn, Fastbreak Magazine
Originally published: December, 1999
Spend some time with former Phoenix Suns center Neal Walk and you can't help but wish you could live life the way he does.
Sound unusual? Maybe, if you just look at Walk from a distance. You might consider his seven-year NBA career as the man overshadowed by Lew Alcindor, or look at the wheelchair he now resides in and come to the conclusion that Walk has every right to be bitter about the hand he's been dealt.
Look closer, and you'll see that Neal Walk's life, and his approach to it, is anything but tragic.
Had Walk's college career taken place in the media-intense world that college basketball exists in today, NBA fans league-wide would have been drooling over the thought of the 6-11 Florida star wearing their team's uniform. However, media attention for any college program not called UCLA was hard to come by in 1969. Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was the one-and-only attraction the sport seemed to have at the time and winning national championships didn't hurt either.
"I was the booby prize," jokes Walk, now a Suns' community relations representative.
After the Suns lost the infamous coin flip for the first pick in the 1969 draft, they knew they wouldn't get Alcindor, but they still needed an impact center. A look at the numbers shows that in Walk, they got one.
Take Walk's last two years as a Gator and you have numbers that in today's college basketball world would leave Dick Vitale speechless. As a junior, Walk averaged 26 points and 20 rebounds. In fact, he led the nation (including Alcindor) in rebounding. In his senior year, he tallied 24 points and 18 boards a game.
"I never spent a lot of time worrying about whether or not people knew who I was," Walk recalls. "I knew I could play in the NBA.
"I met Jerry Colangelo and Johnny Kerr (then the Suns head coach) after a college all-star game. They asked me if I would play for them if they lost the flip or go to the ABA. I told them I would play for them and that's how it started."
As a pro, Walk joined a Suns team that already had a solid center in Jim Fox, but needed more depth at the position. He played in all 82 regular-season games his rookie season, averaged eight points and six rebounds a game for a team that added 23 more wins from the year before and made its first trip to the playoffs. Walk's maiden NBA voyage was not without moments, however, where he was reminded he wasn't the player some fans wanted.
"During rookie camp in 1969, we were scrimmaging in front of about 300 fans in the Coliseum," he says. "Some guy in the stands was letting me have it, saying I was no good and that he could score on me and so on.
"After practice, I snuck up to the concourse, found the guy, walked up behind him and said 'I'm sorry, I didn't catch everything you said. Could you repeat it for me?' He didn't say much after that."
Fox was traded during the offseason leaving Walk as the clear starter in the middle for the next four seasons. At least... it was clear to most everyone.
"I was hanging out in the office the day the trade was made," says Walk. "I went up to Jerry and said 'What are we doing? Who's going to play center next year?' Jerry kind of rolled his eyes, pointed at me and said 'We were thinking you might be a good choice.'"
He was. Walk spent the next four seasons as Phoenix's man in the middle and among all the games he played were two that are a part of Suns lore. Midway through the '71-72 season, Walk scored 42 points — most of them while being guarded by Abdul-Jabbar in a 115-114 win at Milwaukee. As you might expect, Walk was a media favorite after the game. Maybe too much of a favorite.
"I did interviews after that game with both the Milwaukee and Phoenix radio broadcasters," says Walk. "Then I spent some time with the writers, so it took me awhile to get to the shower. Once I did get a shower and got dressed, I went outside the arena and found out the team bus left without me. I had to walk back to the hotel, and remember, this is 1972 — I was wearing platform shoes."
Then there was the night in 1973 when Walk's triple-digit, consecutive-games-started streak was broken. An injury? Not exactly.
"I had a habit of going back to the locker room and spending a few moments just getting mentally ready," says Walk. "One night, (athletic trainer) Joe Proski forgot to check if anyone was still in the locker room before locking the door. I was still in there and I couldn't get out.
"There was nothing I could do, so I went into the training room, stretched out on a table, turned on the radio and listened to Al McCoy try to explain that I was missing. A few minutes after that, I heard the door open. Once I got out there, I told Proski, 'Colangelo's gonna hear about this!'"
Neal was also on the floor the night Wilt Chamberlain scored his 30,000th career point. The game was stopped for a few moments to honor Wilt, and when play resumed, Chamberlain offered a comment to his young opponent.
"Wilt said, 'Hey rook, you think you'll ever score 30,000 points?' I said, 'Gee, I don't know,'" says Walk. "He told me, 'You keep shooting the way you do and you just might get there.'"
Walk's best year came in '72-73, averaging 20 points and 12.4 rebounds a game. He followed that with a 16 point-, 10 rebound-per-game season in '73-74. That's the good news. The bad news — Phoenix was unable to play in even one more playoff game during Walk's final three years in the Valley — not even after two of those seasons in which the Suns won a combined 97 games. And when John MacLeod was hired to serve as head coach for a team in a major rebuilding mode, the bearded center's playing days in Phoenix were near an end.
Walk and a 1975 second-round draft pick were sent to the expansion New Orleans Jazz in a trade that eventually would turn out to be one of the best the Suns ever made. In return Phoenix received center Dennis Awtrey, forward Curtis Perry, guard Nate Hawthorne and a 1975 first-round draft pick that turned out to be guard Ricky Sobers — all four who would make major contributions to the Suns team that captured the 1976 Western Conference Championship. Walk's stay in New Orleans was not as productive, nor pleasant — he was traded five months later to New York.
"I'll never forget the feeling I had right after the trade," he says. "The Knicks were in New Orleans, so all I had to do was meet the team at their hotel. The coach, Red Holtzman, was fantastic. He told me there were three rules — see the ball, hit the open man and get back.
"The next morning, I got on the team plane, looked around and thought, 'Wow, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschure, Earl Monroe. I'm going to like this.'"
Walk played 123 games over a three-season span for the Knicks and in 1975, finally made the playoffs again, although the Knicks were eliminated in the first round. By the time he had arrived in the Big Apple, the Knicks were an aging team undergoing an ownership change. In December of 1976, after averaging just five points and one rebound per game, he was waived.
Contemplating his career options, Walk accepted an invitation to come to Italy to play in Venice. One season in the Italian league translated into 19 points and 12 rebounds a game as well as a different perspective on basketball.
"We played a preseason game one night where we got beat pretty bad," he says. "After the game, everyone stayed in their warm-ups waiting for the coach to come in and yell at us. He went on for about 25 minutes when I finally got up and headed for the shower. The coach asked me what I was doing and I told him that, hey, we know we didn't play well, but tomorrow's another day and we'll do better. The next day at practice, I walked out on the court and my teammates pointed up at the scoreboard. There was an electronic message put up there that said 'Tomorrow's another day' in Italian."
From Italy, it was on to Israel for two seasons before deciding that it was time to come back and give the NBA one last try. Former Suns teammate Paul Silas was the head coach of the San Diego Clippers and former Suns administrator Ted Podleski was the Clippers' General Manager. San Diego would be the place where Walk would come face-to-face with Father Time.
"The first practice, I got shoved going for a rebound," Walk says. "When I was younger, the pain would actually feel good, like I was doing something. This time, though, my first thought was 'I don't like this,' and by the next morning, I told Paul I just didn't have the fire anymore."
For the next several years, Walk would hold several jobs on the East Coast, ranging from x-ray technician to sheet rock specialist. One night in 1983, he was leaving a New York theater when his right leg buckled. He would spend the next two years living with occasional numbness which at times would cause him to alter his walk to a noticeable limp. Without medical examination, the condition persisted until he nearly passed up the opportunity that eventually changed his life.
Walk was working on a Connecticut construction project in 1985, when he was handed a phone message. Bob Machen, the business manager for the Suns and the man who picked him up at the airport on his first visit to Phoenix 16 years earlier, was looking for him. The Suns were arranging a Reunion Game for the end of the season and they wanted Walk to be a part of it.
"I told Bob I didn't think I could play, but he insisted that I come out," says Walk. "When the flight was on final approach to Sky Harbor, I looked out the window, saw the palm trees and the mountains. Getting around town that weekend, I noticed how friendly everyone was. I decided that weekend I was going to move back."
Shortly after settling back in the Valley, Walk's physical problems caught the attention of an orthopedist, who said he thought he could help. One exam was all that was needed to show the problem was big — very big.
"The orthopedist took one look at the initial x-ray and said 'I can't touch you.' Your problem is neurological,'" Walk says. "So I went to Barrow Neurological Institute and that's where the first problem was found."
Walk had bone chips pressing against his neck — bone chips from an elbow delivered from Portland's Dale Schleuter in a 1970 preseason game. The bone chips were removed, but the leg problems continued. More examinations, more x-rays. Walk was told at one point he might have multiple sclerosis. Finally, in 1987, the answer came — an answer that brought anything but relief. Doctors found a tumor that had wrapped around a portion of Walk's spinal cord. Removing it would result in paralysis below the waist, but for Walk, it was a better option than the alternative.
"I asked the surgeon how certain he was the surgery would be successful and he told me he felt he was the best at such a procedure," Walk says. "And if I waited, I'd be risking paralysis from the neck down. As soon as he said that, I said 'Hey, I'm not doing anything tomorrow, are you?'"
The surgery was a success. It left a gap in the spinal cord. To put it simply, some messages can and do get from Walk's brain to his feet, and ironically, his size, which gave him a productive basketball career, was now working against him. Had he been smaller, the spinal cord could have carried enough power from the brain to move his legs. As it was, Walk was now facing life in a wheelchair.
Following months of therapy, Walk got a part-time job at the Jewish Community Center, where the Suns practiced in the years before America West Arena was built. It was there that his life took another turn — for the better.
One afternoon as Walk maneuvered his way into his car, a familiar face spotted him. It was Colangelo, months away from leading the investment group that would purchase the Suns and change his title from General Manager to President and Chief Executive Officer. The impromptu reunion didn't start well.
"I was a little sullen at first," Walk says, "but halfway through the conversation, I realized that I was talking to a man who knew a lot of people and might be able to help me out. So, a few days after that, I called the office and made an appointment to see him. During that appointment, Jerry asked me how I dealt with the problem of being in a wheelchair. I said 'I don't deal with it, I attack it.' I came back to see Jerry a few weeks later at his request and he told me that when I said that, he saw a fire that he hadn't seen in me since my playing days."
Anxious to expand the Suns' reach in the community, Colangelo asked Walk to take on the job of being a goodwill ambassador for the team and organize a Suns Alumni Speakers Bureau. It wouldn't be easy — Walk not only had to round up the alumni, he would be called upon to make numerous appearances and speaking engagements, many on nights and weekends, and more than a few in remote areas around Arizona. Walk wanted the chance to make it work, in part because he wanted to do something for the man who had done so much for him, and not everything basketball-related.
"One of my favorite stories about Jerry Colangelo occurred right after I got to town to sign my first contract," says Walk. "It was late in the day, I was staying in a hotel and didn't know anyone in town. Jerry offered to take me to dinner and asked me if I wanted to do anything afterwards. I told him I really wanted to see the movie Funny Girl because I was a Barbara Streisand fan. So, after dinner, we went to the old Palms Theater on Central Avenue, and there we were, the two of us, watching Funny Girl.
"I owe so much to Jerry. To me, he defines what it means to be loyal to people."
Now, 28 and a-half years after proclaiming himself as the "booby prize" of the 1969 NBA Draft, Neal Walk's days in the Community Relations department are filled with activity, from speeches to arranging appearances and spreading the message of giving back to the community. However, that's not the only message you'll get if you're lucky enough to hear him speak. A storyteller without equal, Walk spreads a message maybe he isn't even aware he's sending.
Listen to Walk speak and you hear no bitterness. Look into his eyes and the fire that caught Colangelo's attention is still there. Although very articulate, he won't allow the word 'pity' into his vocabulary, and why should he?
"I have nothing to feel bad about," says Walk. "I just happen to get around in a wheelchair."
If you haven't already, someday you should meet Neal Walk, but if you're looking for him, don't look down — look up. He's standing taller than ever.