Neal Walk was a big man. At 6'10, 220 pounds, the University of Florida product was a large specimen in an NBA that, like the general population, tended to be smaller than it is today.
Walk was unique in that he had a personality as big as his physique. After his playing days were over, stories of Walk's time both in and out of the NBA would give us plenty of evidence of the richness of Walk's character.
The tragedy of Walk's career in Phoenix was that few Phoenix Suns fans saw through Walk's quiet demeanor and valued him as a player and a person. Among Walk's most vivid memories of his Suns days, sadly, were memories of being booed by the Phoenix crows, even as he led the team in those early franchise years.
Walk was forever measured by the barometer of what might have been. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar became a global phenomenon, a world-altering force, Suns fans looked upon their 'consolation' prize and could only be disappointed.
Yet on the basketball court, Walk was far from a failure. He remains the only Phoenix Sun, along with Charles Barkley, to average 20 points and 12 rebounds in a season. Over his career with the Suns, which lasted 5 years, Walk averaged 15 points and 9 rebounds per game, in just 27 minutes per game. He was also a tremendous facilitator for a big man, leading the Suns in assists in his final season with the team at 4 per game.
Walk's life away from the court was as interesting, if not more. In many ways, it was a microcosm of the 60s and 70s. Walk's career ended after just 8 seasons when his productivity declined after switching to vegetarianism and losing 25 points. He described his basketball at this point in his life as "a spiritual adventure."
Walk admitted to experimenting with drugs during the tail end of his NBA career and his life as an overseas player. After a Caribbean trip where he was seeking "the truth of [his] soul", Walk changed his name to Joshua Hawk.
In 1988, Walk lost the use of his legs as a result of complications from the removal of a tumor on his spinal cord. Ever the optimist, Walk became a voice for mobility impaired, becoming the Wheelchair Athlete of th Year in 1990 and earning a trip to the White House.
In a 1993 speech, he said,"No matter how a person came across their malady, people with maladies have hearts and souls and feelings, and they're capable." Two years later, he would win the Gene Autry Courage Award.
After his illness, Walk was brought back into the Suns family by former General Manager Jerry Colangelo. He worked in various jobs with the Suns, including community outreach and photo archiving, until his dismissal in 2012.
Walk was an early cornerstone of the Phoenix Suns franchise. Along with Dick Van Arsdale, Paul Silas, Gail Goodrich and Connie Hawkins, Walk was a part of the Suns first playoff appearance in 1970. The core of Van Arsdale, Silas, Hawkins and Walk would go on to win 97 games over the next 2 seasons before being slowly broken up in the mid 70s.
Players cannot control how they're perceived by the public. They can only play the game to the best of their ability, something Neal Walk did at a very high level during his time with the Suns.
Walk deserves to be remembered as more than just the other side of the coin flip.