Fred “Curly” Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters passed away at age 77 at his home near Houston. He earned the nickname “Curly” for his shaved head, as a reference to the Three Stooges‘ Curly Howard; it also made him one of the most recognizable Globetrotters. Neal was also known for his big smile and his dribbling skills. He was one of the Globetrotters featured ballhandlers during exhibition acts. He is survived by his fiancé Linda Ware, two daughters, Rocurl (Raquel) and Laverne Neal, and six grandchildren, David, Dante, Jayden, Brandon, Deja, and Hailey.
Globetrotters general manager Jeff Munn said in a statement issued by the team. “We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known. His basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide. He always made time for his many fans and inspired millions.”
Neal was born in Greensboro, North Carolina on May 19, 1942, and attended Greensboro-Dudley High School. He played college basketball at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and led his team to a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) title his senior year. Neal was also named All-CIAA guard, and he was later inducted into the Johnson C. Smith Hall of Fame. In 1986, Neal was inducted into the CIAA’s John B. McLendon Hall of Fame.
Neal played for the Globetrotters for 22 years, from 1963–1985. He played with the Globetrotters in 97 different countries and >6000 games. The Globetrotters retired his number, 22, in a special ceremony at Madison Square Garden on February 15, 2008, as part of “Curly Neal Weekend.” Only 4 other Globetrotters (Wilt Chamberlain, Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon, and Goose Tatum) have received that honor. Neal was also inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
Even those who don’t follow basketball may be familiar with Neal from the Hanna-Barbera animated cartoon Harlem Globetrotters and its spinoff The Super Globetrotters, in which he was one of the animated Globetrotters. Neal also appeared with other Globetrotters in some Scooby-Doo cartoons, Globetrotter specials such as “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island,” and The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine show from 1974–1975. Neal also speared on other television shows such as CBS Sports Spectacular, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, The Ed Sullivan Show, The White Shadow, and The Love Boat.
About never playing in the NBA, Neal said, “I would have made it easy (in the NBA). Being a professional basketball player, I would have made it either way…But I thank the Globetrotters, because I played for them for 22 years and I would have never played that long in the NBA.”
About being a Globetrotter, Neal wrote for USA Today in 2016:
Being a Globetrotter, especially during that time, 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.
As my good friend, the late, great Meadowlark Lemon used to say, “They didn’t see color. They saw joy. To us, that was the most important thing each and every night. And it still is for these Globetrotters today. That’s why the team is still as popular on its 90th anniversary world tour as it ever was: It’s about family. It’s about kids, children of all ages. Taking two hours out of their day to laugh and have fun and forget about what’s getting them down. It’s a place to come together, no matter your background or the color of your skin.