Harlem Globetrotters legend Fred 'Curly' Neal dies at 77

Neal's awe-inspiring ballhandling and legendary shooting skills made him one of the Globetrotters' featured players for 22 seasons.
Image: Former Harlem Globetrotter Curly Neal spins a ball on his head at Sotheby's in New York in 2010.
Former Harlem Globetrotter Curly Neal spins a ball on his head at Sotheby's in New York in 2010.Richard Drew / AP file

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By Doha Madani

Former Harlem Globetrotter Fred "Curly" Neal died at age 77 at his home in Houston, the exhibition basketball team announced Thursday.

Neal's awe-inspiring ballhandling and legendary shooting skills made him one of the Globetrotters' featured players for 22 seasons, before he left the team in 1985. His bald head earned him the nickname "Curly," a reference to the hairless Three Stooges member Curly Howard.

Globetrotters General Manager Jeff Munn said in a statement Thursday that the organization has 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," Munn said. "He always made time for his many fans and inspired millions."

Fred "Curly" Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters shows New York Mayor Abe Beame the art of balancing a basketball at City Hall in 1977.AP file

Neal's number, 22, was retired in 2008, and his jersey was lifted into the rafters at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He was honored with a "Legends" ring, given to those who have made major contributions to the development of the Globetrotters.

A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Neal played college ball at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and was eventually inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Neal also enjoyed a television career, playing himself in a number of programs and specials. He appeared on "The Love Boat," "The White Shadow" and the TV movie "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island."

He also did voice work in episodes of Hanna-Barbera's cartoon "The New Scooby-Doo Movies," assisting the gang in solving mysteries, and in the Globetrotters' own animated series.

Former Globetrotter Curley "Boo" Johnson, who joined the team after Neal's departure, mourned the legend's loss in a statement Thursday on Twitter.

"Last night the World lost a true ambassador of the game of basketball and outside of Muhammad Ali one of the most recognizable faces on the Planet!" Johnson wrote.

CORRECTION (March 26, 2020, 6:45 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated where Fred "Curly" Neal attended college. He went to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, not the University of Charlotte.