Neal Walk was in the parking lot of the Valley of Sun Jewish Community Center a year after his surgery. It was September—one of those late-summer days in the desert when Lucifer should be doing the Channel 10 weather. Phoenix was all brimstone and damnation, and sweat stains were forming on Walk's shirt as he folded his wheelchair and went about the grim business of wedging himself into the borrowed Oldsmobile that he was driving.
Colangelo, whose team had been practicing at the Center, spotted him.
"So Jerry taps me on the shoulder, and I'm still a little pissed at him for the way it ended with the Suns," Walk says. "We exchange greetings, and he tells me to come see him in two weeks." Colangelo asked Walk for a list of all the things he was capable of doing. Colangelo studied it and said he might as well do these things for the organization. He created a community relations job—"I wanted Neal to have something with dignity," says Colangelo, who would sell his 20% stake in the team in 2004—and arranged with a local Ford dealership to provide a specially equipped van for Walk, who has been paralyzed postsurgery from the sternum down.
Walk's job would change—in 1999 he became an assistant photo archivist—but he worked for the organization for almost three decades. He was fired last October. (In an e-mail, a Suns official wrote that it is team policy not to provide details of any "separation," but added, "we appreciate all of the contributions he gave our organization both on and off the court.") Walk says he knew he might be in trouble a month earlier when he met with a human resources representative. "The H.R. lady asks, 'What are your long-term goals?' " Walk recounts. "I say, 'Make it home safely tonight and have sex with my wife.' "
That wife, his second, is the former Georgia Killinger, whom he married in 2011. The previous year he had met her at the Terraces, a continuing-care retirement community in Phoenix; she was (and still is) a caregiver, and he was rehabilitating after further neck surgery. Georgia Hawk is fun and feisty, a ringer for Holly Hunter if the actress were more of the small-forward type than a point guard. She rises for work at 4 a.m.
Neal, who does a 40-minute upper-body workout three or four days a week, takes care of the laundry and other household chores. In the afternoon the couple often dote on Georgia's two-year-old granddaughter, Isabella, who sometimes stays with them. "He has a condition," Georgia says of her husband. "But what his condition is—that's up to him."
Walk was no six-time NBA MVP like the other center in the fated coin flip, but in 1990 he was honored as wheelchair athlete of the year at the White House. (He played wheelchair basketball on a traveling team for five years.) The Basketball Hall of Fame will never induct him, but the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame did, in 2006. In 1995, Walk received the Gene Autry Courage Award from the Tempe (Ariz.) Sports Authority Foundation. "I didn't want to accept it," he says. "For something to be courageous, you need fear. I had no fear. What else could I do? Go in a closet? Dry up? Blow away? If I wanted to find the depth of my own soul, what better way than to be challenged? Am I the way I perceive myself, or am I smoke and bull----?"
"After all the things the guy's been through, I've never heard him bitch once," says Proski, the trainer who sent the bus to the hotel in Milwaukee on a snowy night more than 40 years ago. "The stuff he puts up with on a daily basis would piss me off dearly, but maybe that free-spirit frame of mind allows him to just keep going."
Like a Walk story, lunchtime in Phoenix bumps into dinnertime. The sun is low, backlighting the city in a Cuervo golden glow. Time for a second dose. "I might sound like the coolest cat on Earth," Walk says, "but I'm just trying to be mindful, engaged in the present."
He sips his tequila, holding on to the day. "The universe speaks. Sometimes in whispers. Sometimes in sonic booms. I'm willing to listen more. Joshua Hawk listens better than Neal Walk ever did."