Walter Budko, a retired insurance sales agent who was a first-round draft choice of the old Baltimore Bullets basketball team, where he played for three seasons, died of cancer May 25 at Stella Maris Hospice. The Timonium resident was 87.
According to the New-York Historical Society, Mr. Budko was the first man to score more than 1,000 career points for the Columbia University basketball team. Sportswriters nicknamed him "Boards" because of his ability to rebound. He was inducted into the Columbia Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
Born in Kearny, N.J., and raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y., he attended Trinity High School in Manhattan and then Columbia. He told friends that he picked the university because he listened to its Saturday afternoon football game radio broadcasts featuring its star, Sid Luckman.
A center, he was 6 feet, 5 inches tall as a Columbia freshman. Because many other players were in military service, he played his freshman year on the varsity team. In that 1942-1943 season, he scored 251 points.
He joined the Navy in 1943 and played for its Great Lakes Naval Training Station teams. He trained as an electronics technician and served in the Pacific.
He returned to Columbia after he left military service and earned a civil engineering degree. In the 1947-1948 season, he led his Columbia Lions into the NCAA tournament.
A few weeks after his graduation from Columbia in 1948, Robert C. "Jake" Embry Sr. the president of the Bullets, signed him for the team, based at the old Coliseum on North Monroe Street. A Sun sports column published in 1949 noted that he was the "rookie of the year" and "officials of the local professional basketball team and fans alike breathed more easily when it became known" that he had signed up for a second season of play.
"The Bullets need Budko like ham needs an egg. He was the spark plug of the team last year and one of its best hustlers," the Sun sports column said.
He played another season for the Bullets and, at age 25, was made player-coach after coach Buddy Jeanette was let go in the middle of the 1950-1951 season.
"I thought I could play and coach at the same time, but I found out pretty quick it's an almost impossible job," he said in a 1976 Sun article.
Mr. Budko ended his professional basketball career with the then Philadelphia Warriors.
"He was a great rebounder and had tremendous power and strength," said Harvey Kasoff, an Owings Mills resident, who as a student at Garrison Junior High School was a ball boy for the Bullets. "He would guard George Mikan [of the then Minneapolis Lakers], who was the best player of his era. The next day Walt's chest would be black and blue."
Mr. Kasoff, who remained a friend, called Mr. Budko a "non-controversial family man and a classy guy."
He said that after Mr. Budko stopped playing professionally, he enjoyed an informal game at the old downtown YMCA court on Franklin Street.
"He'd call and say, 'Do you want to play some ball?' And we'd meet there and maybe be joined by Emil 'Buzzy' Budnitz. Afterward he and I would have lunch at the Harvey House," Mr. Kasoff said.
Mr. Budko was for many years a New York Life Insurance agent with an office on Washington Avenue in Towson. He retired fully about 15 years ago.
He left his athletic career behind, but sportswriters rediscovered him the middle 1970s when his son, Peter "Pete" Budko, played for Loyola High School and later for the University of North Carolina.
"Walter Budko sits [in the Loyola Blakefield bleachers], bustling with nervous energy, his jaws grinding away on a stick of gum," said a 1977 Sun article about his presence at his son's games. "The fingers of his left hand moved across his upper lip, the fingers of his right hand periodically grab the nape of his neck."
An Orioles fan, Mr. Budko was a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra subscriber and enjoyed attending its concerts. He also supported various Roman Catholic charities and the Helping Up Mission in East Baltimore.
A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Wednesday, at the Stella Maris Chapel, 2300 Dulaney Valley Road.
Survivors include two sons, Stephen Scott Budko of Parsippany, N.J., and Peter Mitchell Budko of Weddington, N.C.; a daughter, Victoria Lynn Broening of Stephens City, Va.; four grandsons; a great-grandson; and three step-grandchildren. His wife of more than 53 years, Kathleen "Kit" Sauer, and another son, William Budko, died in 2003.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun