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July 08, 2013
He was the second choice in the 1969 NBA draft—a very distant second choice, behind Lew Alcindor. Walk would never be an All-Star or lift a team to a title, but he followed the signs (and his dogs) on a path back to where his career began
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July 08, 2013

Neal Walk

He was the second choice in the 1969 NBA draft—a very distant second choice, behind Lew Alcindor. Walk would never be an All-Star or lift a team to a title, but he followed the signs (and his dogs) on a path back to where his career began

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Walk often says that a man should listen to the universe, but on this night he listened to his size 16s. "I was 6'10"," he says now. "What did I need with platform shoes?" When he returned to Phoenix, he cleared his closet of every pair he owned and committed to a simpler life. There is symbolism in a pair of waterlogged purple shoes, no? Or an omen.

Walk believed in signs. He soon came to believe in vegetarianism and what was lazily labeled a hippie lifestyle. And while the former might have been a healthy choice—he quickly trimmed off 30 pounds and played at a svelte 220—it was a dubious career move for a post-up center. Walk is nonlinear, but you can easily graph his linear decline as an NBA force: 20.2 points per game to 16.8 in 1973--74 to 7.2 in '74--75. This should be codified as Walk's Law: Heightened consciousness is directly proportional to contracting numbers.

"I'd been a big, bruising guy," Walk says. "Now I was playing a different style of ball. It was like ballet without the music. For me basketball was now about a spiritual adventure."

Walk, then in the midst of a brief, problematic marriage, experimented with LSD; he says he found it "expansive." He smoked marijuana. He tried cocaine. His name later surfaced in Phoenix grand jury testimony when a dealer said that he had sold coke to Walk 30 times during the 1973--74 season. Walk vehemently disputes that. "I never purchased anything from anybody 30 times," he says. Walk was never charged.

"He was on his way to a pretty solid career, and all these detours took place," Colangelo says. "The diet, the drugs, the lifestyle—all combined. The changing culture had an impact on him. He developed some bad habits. We kind of lost him for a while. When he changed his lifestyle, it was like Samson cutting his hair. He lost his strength, his presence. I called him in and told him to straighten out his life or he'd be out of basketball pretty quick."

In September 1974, Colangelo traded Walk and a second-round pick to the New Orleans Jazz for three players and a first-rounder that wound up being Adrian Dantley (24.3 career ppg). The center, who had missed just two games in five seasons with the Suns, was about to embark on a phase as an NBA journeyman. Of course the journey was easier considering that on his feet were the Red Wing work boots that he now favors. When the Jazz shipped him to the Knicks after 37 games, he joined apprentice Zen master Phil Jackson. Coach Red Holzman looked at the pair—luxuriant beards, plaid shirts—and dubbed them the Smith Brothers, after the lumberjacks on the cough-drop box. New York released him 11 games into '76--77. He says he had a chance to sign with the Pistons the following season but decided to play in Italy.

Actually, his dogs made that decision. He was living in a renovated barn in Connecticut, ruminating about his future, when he sat against a tree and called his three dogs—a German shepherd named Righteous, a black lab named Deuce and Lodger, a Jack Russell—for a family meeting. "I said, 'Fellas, Detroit or Venice?' " Walk recalls. "I couldn't have a show of hands. So I said Detroit and got nothing. I said Venice and they barked."

A few weeks after arriving in Italy, Walk was taken into custody when police found hashish at the apartment where he was staying. "That wasn't even mine," he says. "It was a cool experience to go to jail, though. An interesting three days."

No charges. Jewish by birth, he migrated to Israel the following year, playing three seasons for Hapoel Ramat Gan. Walk says he should have left after two. He eventually knew it was time to go when the Israeli Defense Force sought him out. The way he recalls it, he told a blustery general that he would drive ambulances or fold bandages or entertain the soldiers, but he would not crawl on his belly in the sand with a weapon.

Walk went to training camp with the San Diego Clippers in 1982, but the pounding of basketballs during two-a-days gave him headaches. "I took a six-pack and sat by the sea wall for six hours, spending time with the universe, listening," he says. "Then I knew it was time." The next day he told coach Paul Silas, a former Suns teammate, that he was finished.

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