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His was a great story

Walker was a basketball force while at Providence


Not just fear. Not just awe. Not just respect, although there were also healthy doses of all three. The best word to describe the feeling Jimmy Walker brought to me as a fervent Boston College basketball fan was terror.

What am I about to say is the gospel truth. I have been rooting for sports teams since the age of 5. In all that time, the most terrifying opponent for me was Jimmy Walker when he wore that Providence College basketball uniform from 1964 through 1967. Michael Jordan was close, but when Jordan was at his menacing best, the Celtics had a few weapons of their own. Bird, McHale, Parish, and DJ were a match for MJ. I never had quite that feeling of comfort rooting for BC when Jimmy Walker was suiting up for PC.

The news arrived yesterday that Walker had died in Kansas City Monday, the victim of lung cancer. He was 63. In later years, one of his sons had become quite rich and famous himself. But I am here to say that on his absolute best day, Jalen Rose was nowhere near as good as his daddy when his daddy was terrorizing me and, I suspect, many other New England college basketball players, coaches, and fans as the greatest of all Providence College Friars.

Yes, greatest. As a collegian, Walker was better than Ernie DeGregorio, better than Marvin Barnes, better than Otis Thorpe, and better than Ryan Gomes, who needed four years to break the PC career scoring record Walker had established in three.

Jimmy Walker was not just the best PC player ever. He was the best player ever to come out of Boston (the long-gone Boston Trade), and I don't care if you want to count Patrick Ewing, who came out of Cambridge. Ewing had a far better NBA career. Ewing was an original Dream Teamer. Ewing was great. But Jimmy Walker was transcendent. Patrick Ewing was a fine player. Jimmy Walker was an innovator.

Walker sneaked up on the world in a way that would have been impossible today. There were neither AAU nor summer camps. His career break came when he somehow gained the attention of the Celtics' Sam Jones, who tipped his prep school alma mater, Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute, that he had this kid in Boston they would like. Today, the hoop world would know about a kid this good. In those days, there were still glorious athletic secrets.

This hoop genius was about 6 feet 3 inches and he weighed somewhat north of 200. He had a borderline linebacker build, and this was one reason no one was prepared for his particular approach to the game. He looked as if all he could do was run over you, but that would be an irrevocably wrong impression for his opponents. For Walker was, in fact, one of the greatest artists the game has known.

I have no way of proving this beyond anecdotal evidence, and I may very well stand accused of being infected with the dreaded East Coast bias, but I choose to believe Jimmy Walker invented the between-the-legs dribble. And if he didn't invent it, I can testify without reservation that he perfected it. Today, just about every half-decent player, male or female, effortlessly dribbles between the legs (with or without a purpose), but when Walker did it more than 40 years ago, we were dazzled beyond measure. I recall watching a Providence game on TV with my hoop junkie buddies during his sophomore season when he suddenly went into an elaborate spin/between-the-legs dribble at midcourt. We all looked at each other and said, "What was that?" It was Jimmy Walker, raising the basketball bar.

I don't know that he deliberately saved his best for BC, but it sure seemed that way to us. He played the Eagles four times. He scored 29, 50, 40, and 33. Those are numbers I will take to my grave: 29, 50, 40 and 33. Naturally, it wasn't just the what; it was the how.

The 29 in an 89-79 dispatch of our Eagles Jan. 6, 1965, at Roberts Center was scary. The 50 against us in the final of the legendary Holiday Festival Dec. 30, 1965, at Madison Square Garden was beyond frightening. The game had been billed in a New York Mirror back page headline as "WALKER VS. AUSTIN: 1-ON-1." John Austin was BC's own All-America guard, and a fine one.

But the night belonged to Walker. BC mentor Bob Cousy tried five different people on him. He tried zone this and zone that. Nothing mattered. The Walk did as he pleased, scoring on jumpers, drives, and on a buzzer-beater at the half -- the memory of this forever frozen in my mind since I was sitting in the first row directly underneath the basket -- a 15-foot banked jump hook, and yes, you read that correctly. The Walk dropped those 50 on us and PC won, 91-86.

Two weeks later, we went to Alumni Hall and were pleased to see him held to 40 (Providence won, 79-77). We were beginning to make progress.

By the time BC faced him for a fourth and final time, Feb. 18, 1967, Jimmy Walker was a certified collegiate legend, in more ways than one. He was en route to leading the country in scoring (30.4 points per game) and he had established his on-court mastery of everyone, but no one more than BC.

This may very well have been the best BC team ever. But in the almost unimaginable college world of the day, we knew the only way we were going to the NCAA Tournament was to beat Providence, and, by extension, Jimmy Walker. Those were the stakes. The winner was going to the NCAA and the loser was going to the NIT. But how could we beat him?

By him having an off night; that's how. BC played well and moved to a 16-point lead. The Walk was missing. He even missed his first seven shots of the second half, one of which hit the side of the backboard. Then he got rolling. Suddenly, he was Jimmy Walker, and, as usual, we had no answer. He kept hitting, and it got down to the final possession before BC held on, 83-82. There never has been a remote doubt in my mind that had he gotten his hands on the ball one more time, we would have lost.

So what happened in the NBA? Here he was, the first pick of the 1967 draft, so why is he now almost forgotten? The easy answer was weight. He packed the weight onto that linebacker body. He may also have not made the best life choices, and we'll let it go at that.

The perception was that he was a failure, but that is false. He played in two All-Star Games and he averaged more than 20 points per game twice. He averaged 16.7 in a 698-game NBA career. But did he fall short of his professional promise? Yes. People expect more from the No. 1 pick in the draft.

The NBA career is another matter. What always will be of far greater importance was the sight of the incomparable Jimmy Walker in that sinister black and white Providence College uniform, spinning . . . whirling . . . terrorizing.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at