Curly Neal at his best
By HELEN ROSS
For Curly Neal, the decision was a no-brainer.
The athletic 6-foot-1 point guard had gone undrafted despite averaging 23 points and earning all-conference honors at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. A few NBA teams sent him a questionnaire, but he would have to pay his own way to try out.
Not the Harlem Globetrotters, though.
“The Globetrotters sent me a plane ticket and gave me room and board,” Neal told the New York Times in 1983.
The invitation from the Globetrotters was printed on red, white and blue stationary. About 125 hopefuls came to the tryouts at DePaul University.
“They only chose five,” Neal once told the Richmond Free Press. “I was one of the lucky five.”
Basketball fans, actually, were the lucky ones as Neal embarked on a celebrated career with the Globetrotters, a team that mixed basketball with comedy and toured around the world.
The Greensboro, North Carolina native, who was a high school star at Dudley High there, played 22 seasons and more than 6,000 games with the Globetrotters, retiring in 1985. During that time, Neal, who was known for his ball-handling prowess, long-range jump shot and always, that megawatt smile, played in 97 countries – and on every continent except Antarctica.
Basketball was supposed to be fun,” Neal once told Ed Hardin, the former columnist at the Greensboro News & Record. “Nobody ever said you couldn’t laugh and smile and play basketball at the same time.”
The Globetrotters retired Neal’s No. 22 jersey in 2008 – the same year he was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame -- during a ceremony at Madison Square Garden. He is one of just seven players to have his jersey retired, joining another N.C. native and NCSHOF inductee Meadowlark Lemon.
"Curly Neal represents the purity of sport and everything that is great about the Globetrotters and the game of basketball," then-Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider said at the time.
In 1993, Neal also was presented with the Globetrotters “Legends” ring that recognizes players for their humanitarian efforts as well as continuing involvement with the team. He remained a public relations representative of the team until he died in March of 2020 at the age of 77.
“We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known,” Globetrotters general manager Jeff Munn said at the time,
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr added on Twitter: “Hard to express how much joy Curly Neal brought to my life growing up.”
The Globetrotters’ 2022 Spread Game Tour is dedicated to Neal. The tour will take the team to Raleigh, Boone, Asheville, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Winston-Salem, Greenville, Wilmington and Greensboro in March and April.
Neal, whose given name was Fred, received his nickname of Curly in deference to his bald head when he joined the Globetrotters. In truth, though, he’d been shaving his head since he was 12 years old.
“The kids in the neighborhood, we decided to do something mischievous,” Neal told bullseye.com in 2008. “My mom didn’t like it at first. She said, ‘What happened to you?’ And I said, ‘I went to sleep in the barber’s chair.’”
At one point during her Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame career, Nancy Lieberman played for the Washington Generals, the team that toured with and played against the Globetrotters. She told the New York Times that Neal “revolutionized” ball-handling.
“Everything you see Kyrie Irving doing and Steph Curry doing now, all of it started with the Trotters,” she said. “The Trotters made dribbling a show.”
Isaiah Thomas, who played on two NBA Championship teams in Detroit, agreed with Lieberman. When Neal died, he retweeted a video of the Globetrotters legend dribbling on his knees, sitting down and between his legs, then making shots from near half court with this text:
“For those who say the game has evolved? I say what’s old is new again. Distance Shot making and dribbling is back!! #CurlyNeal and #MarcusHaynes taught me how to dribble #Globetrotters”
Neal had the basketball skills from the get-go, but he once told the New York Times that he had to learn to be an entertainer. Once he did, though, there was no stopping him.
“Making other people smile made me happy,” he told Hardin. It must have been a wonderful life.