Basketball player Neal Walk will be best remembered as the all-time leading rebounder and highest-drafted player in University of Florida history, selected No. 2 in the 1969 NBA Draft behind Lew Alcindor, who later became legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Expansion teams Milwaukee and Phoenix had flipped a coin to see who would get the first pick.
Milwaukee won, and got Alcindor. The Suns got Walk, a 1965 Miami Beach High grad who was a master storyteller, a gentle spiritual soul, and, like Alcindor, wound up changing his name.
Walk died Sunday in Phoenix at the age of 67. The 6-10 former Suns center had been wheelchair-bound since 1988, when he was left paralyzed from the waist down after complications from surgery to remove a benign tumor from his spine. He had been in poor health over the past year, and infections overtook his body.
Those who knew Walk best remember him as a late bloomer on the court, a humble kid who grew up playing sports at Crespi Park, Fairway Park and North Shore Park. He was born in Cleveland in 1948 and his parents, Al and Sylvia, moved the family to Miami Beach when he was 7. He went on to star for the Hi-Tides in the mid-1960s on a state semifinalist team of mostly Jewish players who sometimes endured opposing fans throwing pennies, stale bagels and anti-Semitic barbs at them.
Edward Steinfeldt, a high school teammate of Walk’s and friend of 55 years, remembered particularly hostile games in Key West and one that ended in a brawl against a Hialeah High team that featured eventual football star Ted Hendricks. NBA star Rick Barry, then a UM player, was at the game and helped break up the fight.
Walk wound up getting recruited to UF by Norm Sloan, and in his junior year led the NCAA with 19.8 rebounds and 26.5 points. He was one of the first Gators to make it to the NBA.
“Neal was extremely humble, never egotistical about his success in basketball,’’ Steinfeldt said. “And when his spinal surgery went bad and he was paralyzed, he never, ever complained. This is a former 6-10 NBA player who could no longer use his lower body, and he said, ‘This is what the situation is, so I will now live in wheelchair and resume my life.’ ’’
A 1966 Sports Illustrated article about the surprising success of the Gators basketball team, read:
“Walk, only 18 and just beginning to reach his potential — he did not even start till his senior year at Miami Beach High — adds not only speed and aggressiveness to the Gator forecourt, but a little glitter of The Beach as well. A close examination of the team’s gray traveling slacks shows that only Walk’s are without cuffs.
“The kid’s gonna need a lot of it,” says his father, Al Walk, rubbing his thumb over the tips of his fingers to make the classic sign for cash. “He’s a regular fashion plate. He wants the $50 shoes, the custom-mades. He’s got to have the fedora, the cuffs off the pants. He better make it in the pros to keep himself dressed the way he wants.’’
In the early-1970s, Walk became a vegetarian, experimented with drugs, and his career took a detour. The Suns traded him to the New Orleans Jazz in 1974, and he wound up playing in Italy and Israel. In 1980, he had a spiritual awakening on the Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius and legally changed his name to Joshua Hawk. The Suns eventually hired him to work in community relations.
Walk was inducted into the Miami Beach High Hall of Fame, was honored as a “Gator Great,’’ had his UF jersey number, 41, retired in 1997, and was named to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
Walk is survived by his wife, Georgia Hawk, and a brother, Warren Walk. He will be cremated and there will be a celebration of his life in Phoenix, and another in Miami Beach in November, when many of his friends will be in town for the 50th reunion of the Miami Beach High Class of ’65.