Fred Neal, the basketball legend and actor better known by his nickname “Curly,” whose entertaining and highly skilled playing made him a star over 22 seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters, died Thursday from undisclosed causes. He was 77
“We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known,” Globetrotters General Manager Jeff Munn said in a statement. “Curly’s basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide.”
Born in 1942 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Neal played basketball for Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. After college, he was recruited by the Globetrotters.
As an early showcase for black players when the NBA was segregated, and then as a proving ground for players who would become some of the greatest NBA stars in history, the Globetrotters were by the 1960s a major entertainment powerhouse, introducing audiences around the world to the spot. Neal became instrumental in the team’s high profile, famous for his shaved head and gift for impressive athletics and physical comedy.
By the 1970s he was one of the most recognizable members of the team, and was featured in all of the Globtrotters’ media endeavors during the decade. This included the Globtrotters’ own animated Saturday morning cartoon (1970-1972) and its spinoff, “The Super Globetrotters,” three appearances on “The New Scooby-Doo Movies,” and a live-action Saturday morning show, “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine.” Neal also appeared with his Globtrotters teammates in the TV movie “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island,” in 1981.
As a tribute to his legacy with the team, in 2008 the Globetrotters retired his number (22). That same year he was also inducted into
the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Neal had two daughters and six grandchildren, and lived with his fiancee in Houston at the time of his death.
“Between 1963 and 1985 – before the internet and cable television really existed-it was Curly Neal and the Harlem Globetrotters who first introduced the sport of basketball to millions of people around the world for the first time,” the Globetrotters organization said on Twitter.
“It was Curly’s magical ball-handling, shooting, charismatic smile and iconic bald head, in more than 6,000 games in 97 countries, that made them start to play and fall in love with the game.”