On March 19, 1969, from the modest offices of the one-year-old Phoenix Suns, general manager Jerry Colangelo joined a conference call with NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy (in New York City) and spoke the most fateful word of his basketball career: "Heads."
Colangelo had been waiting 10 months to say that. A G.M. at only 29, he was incapable of seeing a dark cloud in the Valley of the Sun. He felt in his bones that his franchise, after its maiden season, would select 7'2" Lew Alcindor, the revolutionary center from UCLA, who he believed would lead Phoenix into a decade of dominance. In the 1968 expansion draft Colangelo had targeted young guards who could dance around an Alcindor maypole: Dick Van Arsdale from the Knicks, Gail Goodrich from the Lakers, Dick Snyder from the Hawks. When the Suns lived down to expectations in '68--69 and finished 16--66, last in the West, they qualified, with East doormat Milwaukee (27--55), for a coin flip that would determine which division basement dweller would get the No. 1 pick. Colangelo petitioned the NBA for his Suns to be allowed to make the call. He even asked the commissioner to flip a '64 John F. Kennedy half-dollar, which he considered lucky. A poll in The Arizona Republic favored heads—51.2%, if Colangelo recalls correctly—and he heeded the will of the people.
"Tails." Colangelo was shocked when he heard the call over the speakerphone. He had meticulously constructed a blueprint for glory, and fate had flipped him off. He hopped in his car and drove aimlessly for hours, imagining a future that would never be.
To Colangelo, the second-best player in the draft was a guard from Kansas, Jo Jo White, but the Suns needed a center. Nineteen days later, with the No. 2 pick, Colangelo took 6'10" Neal Walk of Florida.
"I have no idea where that coin is," says the 73-year-old Colangelo. "And I'm not interested."
Unlike that Kennedy half-dollar, Walk has not slipped into the sofa cushion of history. He sits at a table in a Phoenix hotel restaurant, wearing a black Ben Hogan--style cap, three chains around his neck and a shirt the color of a blood orange. Actually, Walk sits beside the table; he has been in a wheelchair for almost 26 years, leaving his legs rail thin from atrophy, and it does not fit under tables. He asks the waitress if the pastrami is lean. (He did not eat meat for eight years in the 1970s; he was a different guy then.) Walk washes down the pastrami with Jose Cuervo gold—for medicinal purposes. The tequila combats the horrific spasms in his legs. He has also been receiving Botox injections in his calves, quads and thighs.
Walk is classified as an incomplete paraplegic. This might be the only incomplete thing about him.
Neal Walk's story begins with a pair of purple platform shoes.
Or not. With Walk you can start anywhere. "I'm nonlinear," he says. One memory ambles off to meet another; he quotes some Bob Dylan and then doubles back to Connie Hawkins or Pete Maravich. At 64, Walk is in his anecdotage. He spins these tales in a rumbling bass, faintly reminiscent of a This is CNN James Earl Jones, but with more honeyed notes. "People connect to his voice as much as to what he has to say," says Kurt Feazel, his roommate at Florida.
Walk's saga is verse, The Love Song of N. Eugene Walk: Phil Jackson reading aloud from the Scriptures by the side of the road on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota as he and Walk pause during a cross-country drive; a postconcert chat with Dylan in a Hartford coffee shop; underage beers in college with Pistol Pete in Gainesville; art patron Peggy Guggenheim in a vaporetto in Venice. In the room the players come and go/Talking of Jerry Colangelo.