Fred ‘Curly’ Neal, 1942–2020
The Globetrotter who dribbled and dazzled
Fred “Curly” Neal was much more than an entertainer—he was a basketball pioneer. A star member of the Harlem Globetrotters from 1963 to 1985, the bald-headed Neal astounded audiences around the world with his seemingly magical ball-handling skills. In exhibition games—mostly against the Globetrotters’ hapless rivals, the Washington Generals—Neal would dribble all over the court, keeping the ball bouncing even as he dropped to his knees, spun around and around, and then jumped back to his feet. He’d then drain two-handed set shots from half court and trot past the opposing team’s bench with a broad grin. These displays made Neal and his teammates regulars on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, inspiring millions in an era when the NBA had a far lower profile. “Oh, my gosh, [Neal] revolutionized ball handling,” said Nancy Lieberman, a former Generals player. “Everything you see Kyrie Irving doing and Steph Curry doing now, all of it started with the Trotters.”
Born in Greensboro, N.C., Neal played basketball at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, earning All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association honors, said The New York Times. “Future NBA stars such as Lou Hudson and Al Attles were high school and college contemporaries, but Neal was not drafted by an NBA team and struggled to land a job in the pros.” An offer soon materialized with the Globetrotters, and in 1963 he became the team’s point guard. Given the ironic nickname Curly by coach Bobby Milton because of his shaved head, Neal had to learn fast how to entertain as well as play, in a troupe known for throwing buckets of confetti—and sometimes water—on courtside fans.
Neal became a crowd favorite with his “showy style and in-game antics,” said The Washington Post. As the troupe’s popularity boomed, the Globetrotters were invited on The Ed Sullivan Show and inspired storylines on Scooby Doo, Love Boat, and Gilligan’s Island, “where Neal and his teammates outplayed a bunch of robots.” During his 22 years with the Globetrotters, Neal “played more than 6,000 games in 97 countries,” said the New York Post. In an era of racial turbulence, Neal believed that performances by the all-black Globetrotters were much more than comedy. Those watching, he said, could be “black, white, or whatever—laughing and enjoying our games made those barriers disappear.” ■