Neal Walk, Florida’s first college basketball star and highest-drafted player in school history, died Sunday night at a Phoenix hospital at 67.
Walk had been battling a blood disease on and off for seven months, according to close friend and former teammate Kurt Feazel.
A skilled, 6-foot-10 center, Walk was the first All-American basketball player in UF history. He finished his Florida career from 1966-69 with 1,600 points, which still ranks eighth on the all-time school scoring list. Walk averaged 20.8 points and 15.3 rebounds in his three seasons.
“He was a skinny kid, and he worked hard to become the best player in school history,” said Feazel, who roomed with Walk at UF. “Off the court, he was like a brother to me. We were friends for 50 years and when we talked on the phone, he would call me brother.”
Florida went a combined 54-23 in Walk’s three seasons (freshmen were ineligible to play varsity college basketball until 1972). He was a second-team All-American at UF in 1967-68, averaging 26.5 ppg and 19.8 rpg, and a third-team All-American in 1968-69, averaging 24 ppg and 17.8 rpg. In 1968-69, Walk helped lead UF to its first postseason appearance in school history, an 82-66 loss to Temple in the NIT.
Former Florida basketball player and Gator historian Bill Koss said Walk developed into an excellent low-post scorer and dominant rebounder. Walk still holds UF all-time records in rebounds (1,181) and career scoring average (20.8 ppg).
“He just had a knack for rebounding, positioning himself, boxing out,” said Koss, a Sun Sports analyst for Gator basketball games. “He spent summers playing basketball and working out in the Catskill Mountain region in New York and that helped him with his physical strength. I recognized how hard he worked to become a great player.”
After a stellar college basketball career, professional teams took notice. Walk was taken second overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 1969 NBA draft behind future Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He played five seasons with the Suns, one season with the New Orleans Jazz and one season with the New York Knicks before continuing his pro basketball career overseas in Italy and Israel. Walk’s best pro season came in 1972-73, when he averaged 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds.
Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo, then the GM of the team, drafted Walk in 1969 as the second pick behind Abdul-Jabbar.
“Neal came as advertised,” Colangelo told Sports Illustrated in a 2013 interview. “He had post moves, a hook shot. He was a smart player who could pass and had a little touch. He had to wear the booby-prize tag hung on him by media and fans, but he was a pretty good center. You don’t put up 20 and 12 if you aren’t.”
Walk took to traveling and various jobs after his pro basketball career ended in 1982 before experiencing temporary loss of function in his legs and toes that affected his walking. Doctors discovered a tumor between Walk’s shoulder blades that pressed against his spine. In 1988, Walk lost use of both legs and was confined to a wheelchair following surgery to remove the tumor, which was benign.
It didn’t stop Walk from continuing to play basketball. He played for the L.A.-Phoenix Samaritans in the Southern California league of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association In 1990, Walk was honored at the White House by U.S. President George H.W. Bush as the “Wheelchair Athlete of The Year.”
“I’m very satisfied with the life that I’ve lived,” Walk told Gator sports historian Norm Carlson in an interview in 1990. “I’ve had tremendous personal success and a great education at the University of Florida.”
In recent years, Walk had worked for the Phoenix Suns’ community affairs department until 2012. Earlier that year, Walk visited with Gator players and coaches when Florida played in Phoenix during its run to the Elite Eight.
“The best thing about Neal was his personality,” Feazel said. “He never had a bad thing to say about anybody. Traveling was hard for him, but he always made an effort to try to come to team reunions.”
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Walk was a standout at Miami Beach High before enrolling at UF in 1965. Walk was inducted into the UF athletic Hall of Fame, Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Miami Beach High Hall of Fame.
Walk’s jersey number 41 was retired following the 1968-69 season and remains the only number retired in Florida basketball history.
“He was a Florida kid,” Koss said. “He made a statement that kids from Florida could come to the University of Florida and be successful.”