- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Neal Walk is simply not the same man today as he was in his NBA days. Actually, he isn't even Neal Walk.
This is perhaps a scene in his Bosch painting: Walk had long been in the thrall of Native American culture when, for two or three days in the summer of 1980, he wandered around Sint Eustatius, a Dutch island in the Caribbean, neither eating nor drinking. He was on a vision quest, a search for spiritual guidance and purpose. He was seeking, he says, "the truth of my soul." He saluted the four directions of the Earth and awaited a sign. Finally, the ocean whispered, "Joshua." Overhead he saw a pair of hawks circling.
And so the man in the wheelchair worrying a piece of lean pastrami, the man who says he is no longer 6'10" but 5'5", is not actually Neal Walk, but Joshua Hawk. He legally changed his name more than three decades ago and, spurred by spirituality, assumed a new identity. See: He's more like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than anyone realizes.
"It was like being bar mitzvahed, although you don't get your cheeks pinched by your grandmother or aunts," Walk/Hawk says of the transformation. "This was a way to release myself from my singular connection to basketball. I separated me from me." (To his basketball colleagues—and the rest of the world, really—he's still Walk.)
"The way Neal deals with life is to take part in a spirituality that he invented," says Michael Rappaport, a forensic psychologist from Miami who has been one of Walk's dearest friends since third grade. Rappaport still calls him Neal, and Walk calls Rappaport by his nickname, Mopey. "When he told me about his new name, I said, 'Do you think God would have given you Myron Goldberg?' "
Neal and Mopey, a sub on Walk's Miami Beach High team, cadged a key to the gym for a little one-on-one during their 20th reunion. This was 1985. Walk had spent his postbasketball years as a corporate headhunter, a photographer's assistant, a dry-waller and a chiropractor's aide. He folded all 82 inches of himself into a New York City kiosk and peddled cosmetics for Discount Dave at five bucks an hour, an experience that he captured in an untitled 1983 poem. (Let me have Palimony Pink, screams a beauty from the back....) Other than some problems with his right foot that surfaced in '82, the world seemed perfect in its imperfections. But then a high school bench guy was beating a former NBA center to the hoop. "I think you have drop foot," Mopey said. "Go see a neurologist."
Walk moved back to Phoenix that year, and he listened to Mopey. A neurologist did CAT scans "and dog scans and every which scan," he says, including a spinal tap. The good news: Walk didn't have multiple sclerosis. In March 1987 he underwent surgery to remove bone chips in his neck, but a disk was pressing on his spinal cord and doctors found a lump between his shoulder blades. That August he had surgery to remove the nonmalignant tumor on his spine that had been affecting his walking. Before the surgery, he was told the procedure afforded a 66% chance of relieving his problems. "I'm not a gambler," Walk said, "but I'll take a risk."
In the recovery room, the surgeon asked if he had feeling in his toes. Barely; just a bit in one toe. Then Walk placed his hands under the blankets.
"What are you doing?" the doctor asked.
"Trying to feel my package."