Friday, November 04, 2005

Where They Are Today - Neal Walk

In the summer of 1969 the NBA draft lottery was decided with a coin toss that gave the first pick to the Milwaukee Bucks, on the expense of the Phoenix Suns. The Bucks used their good fortune to pick Kareem Abdul-Jabar, that lead them to the the team only championship two years later. The Suns had to settle for a jewish center from Florida, Neal Walk. Ten years after, with career stats of 12.6 points and 7.7 rebounds in his resume, he ended up in Israel, playing for Hapoel Ramat Gan – back then a considerable contender – even for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Walk’s dominance in the paint, Steve Kaplan and Or Goren's outside shooting and the good fundamentals of the point guard Avigdor Moskovic, Hapoel Ramat Gan didn't manage to beat the yellows for the championship. Three years after he arrived to Israel, Walk left it for good. "one day I got a note from Tel Hashomer camp which ordered me to be drafted for the army” walk explains. “I got scared and didn’t like terror attacks and the tension in the country anyway, so I just packed my belongings and came back to the US".

Six years later, In 1988, Walk’s life story had a tragic twist, after he suffered from a benign tumor in his spine, which made him paralyzed in his lower body. Since then, Walk never walked again, but even that didn’t stop him from playing basketball – on his wheelchair. Five years he spent in the USA wheelchair basketball league. During that time he was invited to the WhiteHouse as an honor representative of American Para-athletes.

Even during these days, Walk stays close to basketball and is serving as a community representative for the Suns. He’s is also working for the photography unit of the team. On the other hand his Israeli connection was getting weaker, but the memories stayed strong enough. Not always positive though. One of them gives him the shivers until now. “I remember that during one of the halftimes break of one of the final series game against Maccabi, there was an exhibition game of a wheelchair team. It really shook me back then, and I was having a hard time recover from it in the second half and we lost the game. Some years later, my life had changed for the worst and it was me playing on a wheelchair”.

“Overall I liked Israel. I liked the weather, the beach, the beautiful girls and Golda Meir, but to be honest at some time I got sick of the wars and tension and from people arguing all the time”, Walk recall, and claims he still get updated in the politics of the troubled Middle East. “The Palestinians want to throw the Israelis to the Mediterranean sea. There will be always people there that will oppose any agreement. But I have no problem they’ll get Gaza and the West Bank” he say and jokes: “You can say I’m a ‘Shalom Ahshavnik’ (‘Shalom Ahshav’, or ‘Peace Now’ in English, is a Israeli famous leftist movement)”.

Put a side the not so convenient recollection of Israel's everyday life, Walk don’t have too good memories of Israeli basketball and don’t get too excited from the last two European championships of Maccabi. “How many American players plays now in Maccabi? (5 as for 2005). It’s always been the same strategy for Maccabi. They were getting citizenship for their foreign players, like Aulcey Perry and Earl Williams, and that’s why no one can beat them. Well…You can understand them. You can’t say Israelis were such good basketball players. In Ramat Gan we had me and Charlie Davis, Steve Kaplan, Steve Schlachter, Or Goren, Avigdor Moskovic, Yehuda Levy and some Kibbutznik’s and soldiers”.

At least Walk remembers Schlachter, Moskovic and Yehuda Levy as “nice persons", but it doesn’t seems to be the case about the team’s biggest star Steve Kaplan. It seems Walk keeps some of his grudge for him till now – 25 years after. “I remember that when I first came to the team, Kaplan came to me and said: ‘do you know who is the best scorer of this league for the the last three consecutive years?” Walk recalls, “It didn’t make an impression on me. ‘so what?’ I tasked him, ‘I played against Kareem, Wilt Chamberlain and Willis Reed’. So sure…he was a pretty good shooter, but I always thought he was kind of sissy”.

Even though Walk insist things didn’t got to a dramatic confrontation, he admits there was not a lot of love between them. “Our relationship just didn’t go as smooth as you expect. He also looked a bit pathetic we the way he combed his hair from side to side, to cover his bold head. Our assistant coach, a short guy, also used to comb his hair that way but in another direction – from back to front. Anyway, Kaplan was arrogant. I loved Schlachter though, and his wife Bina. He was a funny guy and at least he made an effort on the court”.

Walk works for the Suns which was one of the best teams in the NBA last year and he enjoy it very much. “I love it here and I think we have pretty good chance to win the championship this year. Steve Nash had earned his MVP trophy, Amare Studamire is a freak and Mike D'Aatony is a great coach whom I played against as a player in my only season in Italy, before I came to Israel”. Says Walk and asks to send his best wishes for all his friends in Israel.

And what about Kaplan? I ask. “You know what…tell Kaplan I have more double-double games in the Suns history. More than any other player. More than Charles Barkley, more than Kevin Johnson, more than Shawn Marion. More than all of those guys – It’s much more than he ever did in his career”.


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