Fred “Curly” Neal, the longtime Harlem Globetrotters guard whose dazzling dribbling and penchant for half-court shots entertained several generations of basketball fans, has died. He passed on Thursday at his home near Houston at age 77, the Globetrotters announced. No cause was given.
Neal’s signature shaved head and basketball excellence made him one of the faces of the Globetrotters, a traveling exhibition team known for mixing comedy in with its superb skills. Neal, who gained the nickname “Curly” upon joining the team, was part of more than 6,000 games in his Globetrotters career spanning 1963-85.
The team’s antics spotlighted Neal’s immense talents, particularly on a set piece in which he would dribble around a hapless defender, dropping to his knees and passing the ball before reclaiming it and resuming the cat-and-mouse game. It usually ended with Neal throwing himself a bounce pass through the defender’s legs for a layup.
Neal also was a frequent participant in the infamous “water bucket” prank, in which he washed out a teammate with a cup of water, only to be chased around the court by the “angry” player, culminating in a confetti shower on someone in the audience.
The bits and the basketball skills displayed at a time when the NBA wasn’t a regular TV attraction made the Globetrotters a staple of ABC’s Wide World of Sports shows on weekends in the 1960s and ’70s. Those appearances also spawned a Globetrotters animated show and numerous guest star appearances. Neal himself appeared on Superboy, The Love Boat, a Gilligan’s Island TV movie, and The White Shadow, among other shows. The animated Neal even teamed with Scooby-Doo in a series.
“His basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide,” Jeff Munn, the Globetrotters’ general manager, said in a statement on Thursday. “He always made time for his many fans and inspired millions.”
Frederick Neal was born on May 19, 1942, in Greensboro, N.C., and played at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, earning All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association honors. Despite his talent, he went undrafted and couldn’t latch on with an NBA team, much to his disappointment.
An opportunity with the Globetrotters emerged, and Neal was chosen to succeed Marques Haynes as the team’s ballhandler-in-chief. In 2008, the Globetrotters retired Neal’s No. 22 at a Madison Square Garden ceremony.
No information was immediately available on survivors or a memorial.
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