As a young lad growing up in the 70s, I have memories of munching on my Saturday morning cereal and watching cartoon images of the Harlem Globetrotters flicker across the screen and whiling away a lazy afternoon watching the real team dazzle crowds with their crazy impossible trick shots.
The Harlem Globetrotters popped up everywhere in my childhood, and one of my favorite players was Curly Neal. The only thing that could outshine Neal’s otherworldly ball-handling skills was his charismatic charm. Neal could move a ball around the court and a defender with a brilliance matched only by his smile.
And both his basketball skills and his charm were and are equally important on a team like the Globetrotters. The Globetrotters have their roots in the sports barnstorming era before leagues existed in their current form. As the NBA grew in prominence, the Globetrotters began evolving their game to include entertaining features like trick shots and fancy dribbling. The team still travels the world staging exhibition games with their eternal nemesis, the Washington Generals. They have become ambassadors for basketball, bringing fun and entertainment to thousands of fans at each game.
Curly Neal joined the team in 1963 and became one of its most recognizable faces. His jersey is one of only five that have been retired in the history of the organization.
Neal passed away quietly in March at his home in Houston. In the midst of all that’s happened in the last few months, I missed it, but I’d like to reflect on his moxie now if you indulge me:
Moxie sticks around for a long time.
Fred “Curly” Neal grew up in Greensboro, N.C. He was a standout player at Johnson C. Smith University, averaging 23.1 points a game. He and was also named All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) guard. A professional career was clearly on his roadmap after college, and teams came calling, including the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, St. Louis Hawks, Baltimore Bullets, and the Globetrotters. Neal ended up a Globetrotter for the most mundane of reasons. As a free agent, most teams wouldn’t pay his room and board to come to play for them, but the Globetrotters would. So, he joined the Globetrotters. The decision was fortuitous.
He went on to play from 1963–1985 for the Harlem Globetrotters, a remarkable 22 years. He was a leader on a team that was a pop culture sensation throughout the 60s and 70s.
It was hard to miss the Globetrotters, from their appearances on the Wide World of Sports to their guest appearances on shows like Scooby-Doo and Gilligan’s Island and even their very own animated series.
The Globetrotters’ style on and off the court influenced players and fans. The NBA might not be as flashy and exciting today were it not for the showmanship and skill of the Globetrotters.
When he joined the team, the Globetrotters needed a dribbler. Neal stepped up to fit the bill. He practiced one particular move — sliding across the court like a baseball player slides into home, all the while maintaining control of the ball — for months, playing 300 games a year, and then practicing during the off-season, too.
He became one of the best ballhandlers in the business and even passed some of his skills on to NBA players.
After his playing career wrapped up, he wanted to retire to Orlando and work on his golf game. But efforts were underway to get a new expansion team up and running, and he was drafted to help with the effort. He became a community ambassador for the Orlando Magic, and even mentored some of the young players who were part of the early team. He eventually also returned to the Globetrotters to support public relations efforts and help fans get to know and embrace a new generation of players.
Neal was adaptable and willing to put in the time and effort to master new skills. He never stopped growing, learning, and doing.
Moxie brings people together.
Neal never saw himself simply as a basketball player or an entertainer.
“Being a Globetrotter … was as much a responsibility as it was a job,” Neal wrote in an op-ed in USA Today. “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.”
Neal’s career with the Globetrotters began in the midst of the civil rights movement when tensions were exceptionally high and violence towards African Americans was all too frequent. He saw his role as a way to relieve some of that pressure and tension and find a way forward.
We find ourselves in a similar place today, with tensions high and violence against African Americans happening all too frequently. I’m grateful for those like Curly Neal who have the moxie to help us relieve some of those pressures — even for just a few hours — as we struggle together to find a way forward.
Frederick “Curly” Neal, as a young boy who witnessed you in action, you will be, WITHOUT QUESTION, DEEPLY missed.