By Jeff Munn
If the emotion expressed the last few days over the passing of former Suns center Neal Walk has surprised you, take a moment to consider where Phoenix was as a city when Neal Walk first stepped off a plane at Sky Harbor in 1969.
No Cardinals, no Diamondbacks, no Coyotes. Heck, two years prior, no Suns. ASU played in the Western Athletic Conference. So you’ve got this Major League sports franchise that comes into town, and anyone connected with it seems larger than life to people, especially kids, in a town that was roughly have the population it is today.
Names of Suns players had a romanticism to them that Dodger players surely had in Brooklyn. Dick Van Arsdale, Gary Gregor, Jim Fox, Paul Silas, McCoy McLemore, Lamar Green and the incomparable Connie Hawkins. Phoenicians knew ‘em all.
Then you get to Neal Walk. It was probably the disappointment of losing the infamous coin flip and not getting Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) that may have led to the absolute lack of fanfare that accompanied Walk to Phoenix, or maybe it was the fact in 1969, college basketball and television only got together at the Final Four, or when UCLA played a team that might actually beat them. For perspective, imagine the frenzy that would occur today if the starting center at Florida averaged 26 points and 20 rebounds a game.
That was Neal Walk as a junior. The 20 boards led the nation that season, a nation that included Alcindor. Yet, all anyone knew about was Alcindor. Dominant center, dominant team (UCLA, if you didn’t know). The Suns lose the coin flip, they get the second pick. They take Neal Walk. Again, in 2015, the second overall pick, a center who averages 26 and 20 as a junior – admit it, most of you would want him signed on the spot.
It wasn’t that way for Neal Walk. He described himself as “the booby prize”, but that was just his sense of humor at work. For the majority of his professional career, Walk worked in obscurity. He is, along with the Charles Barkley, one of two players in Suns history to average at least 20 points and 12 points in a season. Stoudemire didn’t do it, neither did Chambers, Marion, Larry Nance neither. Maurice Lucas? Truck Robinson? Nope. Just the Chuckster and Neal Walk.
His career was not without significant moments. In 1973, Walk dropped 42 points on Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks in Milwaukee. When Kareem gave his famous “you try dragging Lanier and Walton up and down the court for 48 minutes” speech in the movie “Airplane”, he didn’t mention Walk…but that doesn’t mean dragging Neal up and down the court for 48 minutes was a joyride.
True to his offbeat nature, Walk had a hook shot, just as Abdul-Jabbar did, only Neal’s was left-handed.
However, the reason you hear so much genuine sadness at Neal’s passing has so much more to do with the man than the basketball player. To put it simply, Neal Walk was Bill Walton before Bill Walton, in the sense that Neal had a unique perspective on life and its ironies that would have left Walton in sincere admiration. Music, politics, the drug culture, Neal either experienced it or witnessed it, and had a strong opinion about it.
An example – his first night in Phoenix after signing his first NBA contract, then Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo took him to the old Palms Theatre on Central Avenue to see the movie Funny Girl. Neal was a huge Barbra Striesand fan. How do you think that would go over in today’s NBA? By the way, the Palms was one of the great single-screen movie theatres this town ever had.
He also knew his basketball. Walk got to the point on a player or a team in blunt terms, which meant he would have hated the idea of being handed a microphone. Like most players, though, he knew his craft, and if you were smart enough to listen to him, you would learn something everything time he spoke.
You might have noticed we’ve gotten nearly seven hundred words into this without mentioning the wheelchair. Appropriate, since Neal didn’t let it become the major topic of his life following surgery to remove a tumor on his spinal cord that left him paralyzed from the waist down. It just didn’t matter. And it shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind in our recollections of him.
Neal Walk was your cool older brother who always had a witty remark to make about the day’s news, last night’s game, or life in general. He was well equipped to play the hand life dealt him. His passing would never be classified as major news to most, but to those of us who knew him, losing him hurts. Booby prize? No way. To a legion of Suns fans and his many friends, Neal Walk was a number one pick.