Gators basketball great Neal Walk dies at 67

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Neal Walk and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forever will be linked.

Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) won three NCAA championships at UCLA, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1969 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks and went on to win six league titles (one with the Bucks, five later alongside Magic Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers) and six MVP awards.

Walk, the most decorated and dominant player in University of Florida history, was selected No. 2 overall in ’70 and went on to play nine solid-though-not-spectacular seasons in the NBA.

But a half-century ago he arrived at Florida and changed the Gators program.

Born July 29, 1948 in Cleveland, Walk was 6 when his family moved to Miami. His first game at UF came 14 years later — mere days after Gators quarterback Steve Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy — for first-year coach Tommy Bartlett.

The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Walk broke onto the scene as a sophomore in 1966-67 (freshmen were ineligible) and promptly averaged 11.5 points and 8.2 rebounds while leading the Gators to a 21-4 record that set a school record for wins in a season.

When he was done, Walk had scored 1,600 points and grabbed 1,181 rebounds, the latter figure still tops among UF players and ninth-best in league history (with his 19.8 average still second best). In games against Kentucky, Walk averaged 24.7 points and 22.5 boards.

His Florida teams went a collective 54-23 overall, with second- and third-place finishes in the SEC, the program’s greatest three-year stretch at the time. 

Because only conference champions reached the NCAA Tournament in those days, Walker’s only taste of postseason play was a first-round loss to Temple in the NIT his senior year.

Just six days after that NIT game, the NBA held a conference call between the league’s two worst teams, the Bucks and Suns, where a coin toss would determine who would have the No. 1 overall pick in the ’69 draft.

Suns owner Jerry Colangelo called tails.

The Bucks drafted Alcindor and a year after finishing 27-55 flipped that record to 56-26, with Alcindor (28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, 4.1 blocks) named Rookie of the Year. Milwaukee won the NBA title a year later.

The Suns selected Walk second, where he remains the highest-drafted Gators player in UF basketball history.

Walk averaged 12.8 points and 8.5 rebounds as a rookie, numbers that came very close to his career stats of 12.6 points and 7.7 rebounds. Worth noting: On Jan. 11, 1972, Walk hung 42 on Alcindor and the Bucks in a one-point win at Milwaukee (that one had to feel pretty good).

He was traded to the expansion New Orleans Jazz in 1974, where he played with Pete Maravich. His final NBA season was with the ’75-76 New York Knicks when he and a fellow named Phil Jackson shared minutes at the center spot.

"People didn’t appreciate how good he was on the court," Steve Rich, Walk’s longtime friend and former roommate, told The Arizona Republic. "He felt unappreciated. Instead of appreciating him for what he could do, they always compared him to Jabbar. He was as smart as any athlete I’ve ever met. Neal like it when he was seen that way."

From there, it was one pro season in Italy and retirement.

The surgery that ultimately took Walk’s ability to walk did not end his basketball career. He played in a traveling wheel chair league for five season and was honored in 1990 as the game’s player of the year. In 1995, he received the Gene Autry Courage Award from the Tempe (Ariz.) Sports Authority Foundation, and in 2006 Walk was inducted in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

In 1997, Walk’s No. 41 jersey was officially retired in a ceremony before a game and the Gator great was inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame.

Walk is survived by his wife Georgia and a brother.