Jimmy Walker, a Boston high school basketball star, Providence College All-American, No. 1 overall National Basketball Association draft choice in 1967, and the father of current NBA player Jalen Rose, died Monday in Kansas City after a battle with lung cancer. He was 63.
Walker played nine years in the NBA for three teams -- the Detroit Pistons, the Houston Rockets, and the Kansas City Kings. It was the Pistons who made Walker, a powerful 6-foot-4-inch guard, the first overall pick in 1967, and he was selected to play in two All-Star Games, 1970 and 1972, while with Detroit. The year the Pistons drafted him was the first since the NBA abandoned the "territorial draft," in which teams were awarded an extra first-round pick to select players who played within 100 miles. Had that rule been in effect, he may well have played for the Boston Celtics.
That same year, he also was the final pick of the final round of the National Football League draft by the New Orleans Saints -- even though he never played football in college.
But it was at Providence College from 1964-67 that Walker established himself as one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- collegiate players in New England history. He averaged 23 points a game as junior and then led the nation in scoring as a senior, averaging 30.4 points a game. On Dec. 30, 1965 he scored 50 points against Boston College in a holiday tournament at Madison Square Garden. The BC coach at the time, Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, yesterday remembered that game -- and Walker -- quite vividly.
"He was certainly a 7 or an 8 on a scale of 10," said Cousy, who also coached against Walker in the NBA when he was coach of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "He was stylish in terms of an Earl Monroe-type player. He was probably as difficult to guard as anyone in our league. He had range. He penetrated. He saw the floor well. He definitely was a cut above the average player."
Added Dick Harter, an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers who saw Walker while coaching at the University of Pennsylvania, "He was a very complete player, could do it all -- pass, shoot, everything."
Walker grew up in Roxbury, and it was one of Cousy's Celtics teammates, Sam Jones, who saw Walker play for the now-defunct Boston Trade High School and became a mentor of sorts to the teenager. He directed Walker to Laurinburg Institute, an all-black prep school in North Carolina that Jones, a Hall of Famer, had attended. From there, Walker returned to New England to attend Providence, coached by Joe Mullaney. How he got to Providence is the stuff of legend.
Mullaney had recruited a player from Boston, Bill Blair, who happened to be Walker's cousin. When Blair arrived at Providence, his mother told Mullaney that he should recruit Walker. Mullaney then sent his assistant, future Hall of Famer Dave Gavitt, to see what the fuss was all about.
Gavitt came back raving about Walker, and rest is history. Gavitt coached Walker on the freshmen team and it went undefeated.
While on the Providence varsity, Walker helped the Friars become a national championship contender. The team was ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation and, in Walker's sophomore year, Providence's hopes for a berth in the Final Four were obliterated when a Bill Bradley-led Princeton team crushed the Friars by 40 points in the NCAA Tournament. The team finished 24-2 after that loss.
As a junior, Providence again had title aspirations, returning all the key players from the year before, including future NBA player Mike Riordan. But the team lost starting center Dexter Westbrook because of academic difficulties and with that went the team's title hopes. As a senior, he was a one-man band, establishing a school scoring record that stood for nearly four decades, until broken by current Celtics forward Ryan Gomes. Walker, however, played only three years at Providence -- and with no 3-point shot -- while Gomes played four.
That performance convinced the Pistons to take Walker as the No. 1 overall pick in '67, the only player from a New England college to achieve that distinction. In his nine NBA seasons, he averaged 16.7 points a game, including 20.8 in 1969-70 and 21.3 in 1971-72, his two All-Star years. After leaving the game in 1976, he dropped out of sight, only to resurface in the 1990s when it was revealed he was the father of Rose, a star at the University of Michigan and a member of their so-called Fab Five. Rose, born in 1973, recently finished his 13th NBA season as a reserve with the Phoenix Suns.
Walker was living in the Kansas City area when he died.