Remembering Jimmy Walker

By Peter May
Updated: July 4, 2007

BOSTON – Jimmy Walker, a Boston high school basketball star, Providence College All-American, number one 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-3 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 after the NBA abandoned the “territorial draft,” in which teams were awarded an extra first-round pick to select players who played college within 100 miles. If that rule had been in effect, Walker might have played for the Boston Celtics.

He also was the final pick of the final round of the National Football League draft by the New Orleans Saints, even though he had not played football in college.

It was at Providence College from 1964-67 that Walker established himself as one of the greatest collegiate players in New England history. He averaged 23 points a game as a 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. Yesterday, the BC coach at the time, Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, 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. One of Cousy’s Celtics teammates, Sam Jones, saw him 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. 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 was 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. Gavitt coached him 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 number three in the nation in Walker’s sophomore year.

Walker established a career scoring record that stood for nearly four decades at Providence until broken by current Celtics forward Ryan Gomes. Walker, however, played only three years on the varsity, with no 3-point shot, while Gomes played four.

That performance persuaded the Pistons to take Walker as the number one overall pick in ’67, the only player from a New England college to achieve that distinction. Monroe was chosen second; Walt Frazier fifth.

In his nine NBA seasons, Walker averaged 16.7 points a game, including 20.8 in 1969-70 and 21.3 in 1971-72. He formed a one-two scoring punch with Dave Bing for the Pistons. The two also lived together.

“He was a good guy, down to earth, easy to get along with, loved to have fun,” Bing said, according to a statement on the Pistons website. “He was a great offensive player. He had the skills that would mesh well with the game today. He had range, so he could shoot the 3-pointer. He was a joy to play with.”

Walker retired in 1976 and fell out of touch with his former teammates. In the 1990s, 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 recently finished his 13th NBA season as a reserve with the Phoenix Suns.