Curly Neal, a player, comedian, and good-will ambassador with the Harlem Globetrotters, dies at 77

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Curly Neal was one of basketball’s greatest ambassadors and most recognizable faces.

By Joel Alderman

Basketball legend, Fred “Curly” Neal, a dribbling phenom with the Harlem Globetrotters, and the heir apparent to Marques Haynes, died March 26 at his home near Houston. He was 77. He entertained with the Globetrotters from 1963-85, appearing in more than 6,000 basketball exhibitions in 97 countries. According to Mark Spears of ESPN, Neal had been fighting the effects of a stroke.

He was one of eight Globetrotters to have his jersey retired when his No. 22 was lifted to the rafters during a special ceremony at Madison Square Garden in 2008. The others whose numbers are retired are Wilt Chamberlain (13), Marques Haynes (20) Reece “Goose” Tatum (50), Meadowlark Lemon (36), Hubert “Geese” Ausbie (35), Charles “Tex” Harrison, the team’s head coach since 2005 (34), and “Sweet” Lou Dunbar (41).

The organization presented Neal with its “Legends” ring in 1993.

Sweet Georgia Brown

He would appear on the court and join several others as he strains of “Sweet Georgia Brown” played over the public address system. It was the famous warm-up drill when the players formed a circle and tossed the ball around in a tricky fashion. It gave the crowd a preview of some of Curly’s ball-handling skills. The game was yet to start, yet spectators learned to show up early lest they miss an important part of the show.

After Marques Haynes left the organization and formed the Harlem Magicians, Neal took on the dribbling routine that became his trademark, along with his shaved head, infectious smile, and happy personality.

While it was part of an act, helped by the man who was supposedly guarding him, the demonstration wasn’t just something any basketball played could do. He dribbled close to the floor, went left and right, through his legs, never lost possession, and finally went in for a lay-up that brought down the house.

Neal was a member of the Globetrotters’ most popular era in the ‘70s and ‘80s, appearing on TV shows and commercials. He was also known to youngsters who might never have seen him without the team’s cartoon series.

Since retiring as a player O’Neil stayed with the organization as an “Ambassador of Goodwill.”

Tributes to Curly Neal

Upon learning of Neal’s passing, fellow Globetrotter Boo Johnson tweeted “Last night the World lost a true ambassador of the game of basketball and outside of Muhammad Ali one of the most recognizable faces on the Planet! Rest In Peace my Brother….”

“Hard to express how much joy Curly Neal brought to my life growing up. RIP to a legend,” Golden State Warriors coach and former NBA player Steve Kerr tweeted.

“For those who say the game has evolved? I say what’s old is new again! Distance Shot making and dribbling is back!! Curley Neal and Marcus Haynes taught me how to dribble.” — @IsiahThomas.

“Curly Neal is an important part of Johnson C. Smith University’s basketball history and the history of black college basketball,” said Steve Joyner the school’s athletic director and basketball coach.

The president of JCSU, Clarence Armbrister, said in a statement shortly after Neal died, “Like millions of people around the world, I remember being in awe of Curly’s skills on the basketball court and the joy I felt watching him and the other Globetrotters as they entertained us. His talents as a Harlem Globetrotter, and most importantly as a Golden Bull, will forever be remembered.”

And the university’s Director of Athletics Stephen Joyner Sr. added “Curly Neal is an important part of Johnson C. Smith University’s basketball history and the history of Black college basketball. His work as a global superstar and ambassador, even after his retirement from the Harlem Globetrotters, is proof that sports unite people and demonstrate the power of teamwork. . . His basketball accomplishments elevated the possibilities for the Black athlete at every level of amateur, collegiate and professional play. The Department of Athletics extends deep condolences to Curly’s family, friends and all who worked with him over the years.”

Other than basketball

Neal was a crowd favorite with his trademark shaved head, infectious smile and ability to dribble circles around would-be defenders. He was a key player during the ‘70s and ’80s, he appeared on TV shows and like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Love Boat” and “Gilligan’s Island” and countless times on “Wide World of Sports.”

He was on episodes of childrens’ TV shows “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine” and “Scooby-Doo .”

Neal said in 2009 that in retirement he hoped to join the Senior PGA Tour. But when he was asked to help form an NBA team in Orlando, “I spent so much time with the Magic that my golf went to the ducks for a while.”

In 1974 he appeared in “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine,” a Saturday morning children’s program. He also had TV roles in episodes of “Love Boat” and “Gilligan’s Island.”

    Quoting Curley

Neal wrote in an op-ed piece for USA Today in 2015 that being a Globetrotter, especially during the 1960s, “was as much a responsibility as it was a job. We weren’t just entertainers. I truly believe that we helped ease many of the tensions that pulled at the country. It didn’t matter if you were black, white or whatever — laughing and enjoying our games made those barriers disappear.”

An opportunity with the Boston Celtics

Neal said in a 2010 interview on NESN that when he was in college he received a letter from Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein inviting him to try out for the team. At the same time, he was being pursued by the New York Knicks, but he would have had to pay for his room-and-board while trying out. Neal said that when Saperstein offered to pay the cost, he turned down the Knicks and decided to go with Saperstein’s team.

In 2009 he said that being a member of the Harlem Globetrotters was about “children, family, bringing people and nations together. It’s about character and charisma – you have to be special to be a Globetrotter because you deal with so many different issues. It’s about giving back.” (The Virginia-Pilot)

A star in college

Most fans are not familiar with his career at the historically black Johnson C. Smith University In Charlotte, NC. from 1959-63. His final season he averaged 23.1 points a game as he led the Golden Knights to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title.

While a member of the Globetrotters he earned his college degree in 1963, mainly because of an injury. In an article in that year in The New York Times he said that during a game in 1971 he had a heart attack. While recuperating he went back to college and earned his degree.

In addition to Madison Square Garden, his jersey number, 22, hangs from the JCSU Brayboy Gym ceiling. He was inducted to the CIAA Hall of Fame in 1986, and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. The Globetrotters presented him with the team’s “Legends” ring in 1993.

Neal is survived by his two daughters, Raquel and Laverne, and six grandchildren.

A great tribute

Curly Neal’s profile was well summed up in an anonymous post which reads “A world ambassador at the highest degree, he had as many tricks as Felix the cat. Well done while you were here Curly. Now go entertain the Angels.”

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