PHOENIX — Neal Walk, Florida's first college basketball star and a tough center on the early Phoenix Suns teams who became an inspirational speaker after losing the use of his legs, died Sunday night. He was 67.
Mr. Walk had been battling a blood disease on and off for seven months, close friend and former teammate Kurt Feazel said.
The 6-10 center played for the Gators from 1966-69 and was their first All-American basketball player. He still holds school records with 1,181 career rebounds and a 20.8 scoring average and ranks eighth with 1,600 points.
"He was a skinny kid, and he worked hard to become the best player in school history," Feazel told the Gainesville Sun. "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."
Former Florida player and Gator historian Bill Koss said Mr. Walk developed into an excellent low-post scorer and dominant rebounder.
"He just had a knack for rebounding, positioning himself, boxing out," Koss, a Sun Sports analyst for Gator basketball games, told the Sun. "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."
Mr. Walk was the highest-drafted player in Florida history, going second overall to Phoenix in 1969 after the Suns lost the coin flip with Milwaukee to draft Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor).
"My answer to the coin toss," he once told azcentral sports, "was always, 'I didn't toss it and I didn't make the call. I just play basketball.' "
Mr. Walk's best NBA season came in 1972-73 with the Suns, when he averaged 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds. He played for five seasons with Phoenix and also played for the Jazz and Knicks in his eight-year NBA career.
Mr. Walk lost the use of his legs in a surgery to remove a tumor from his spine in 1987.
Then-Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who as general manager had drafted Mr. Walk, created a community relations job for him. He gave inspirational talks and established camps for disabled athletes.
HORNETS: Forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is expected to miss extended time after an MRI exam revealed he has a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The team would not say if he needed surgery.