Fred “Curly” Neal, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters for 22 years before his retirement in 1985, died at his home in Houston on Thursday, the team confirmed on social media. 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.”
The team did not reveal any further details about his cause of death.
Neal previously played college basketball for Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina, where he earned All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association honors, according to USA Today.
He joined the Globetrotters in 1963 and played more than 6,000 games in 97 countries for the club over the next 22 years. Most of these games came against the Washington Generals, the Globetrotters’ longtime rivals.
“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 team said of their iconic player.
“It was Curly’s magical ball-handling, shooting, charismatic smile and iconic bald head … that made them start to play and fall in love with the game,” the Globetrotters added.
Ironically, Neal earned the nickname “Curly” because of his bald head, the New York Times reported.
Throughout his career, Globetrotters fans would often be treated to an amazing display of Neal’s ball-handling talents, which would see him spin across the hardwood on his knees — all while maintaining control of the ball — and score on a floating layup.
Neal was also a talented shooter and could score easily dozens of feet from the basket.
The Globetrotters retired Neal’s No. 22 jersey in 2008.
“Being a Globetrotter, especially during that time, was as much a responsibility as it was a job,” Neal told USA Today in 2016. “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.”
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