When I heard Curly Neal had died last night at 77, my heart sunk.
It’s a cliche to say part of my childhood went with him, so instead, I’ll just say a special piece of it did. But his death reminded me of when I was about 10 and got invited to a birthday party.
The invitation said we were all going to go see the trotters. Having grown up around Belmont, Aqueduct and Yonkers Racetracks, I was totally excited to go.
But I was also slightly baffled. My mother was, too.
A birthday party at a racetrack? Hey, it was the ’70s, so nothing was out of the realm of possibility.
My mother and I had a lot of questions. How would we be getting to Yonkers Raceway? By bus? Where would we be sitting? Or standing? And most importantly, would we be able to place bets?
When I had gone to Belmont with another friend back then, we’d pick our horses for each race with his dad, and if we won, we collected a dollar per race. Of course, we never had to put any cash down for our “wagers,” though thinking about it now makes me laugh: My friend’s dad, the bookie to 10-year-olds! Our goal was simply to win enough money by the fifth or sixth race to buy a hamburger and a coke for lunch.
So when I got the birthday invite, I assumed it would be something similar, but my mother wanted to call my friend’s mom to know exactly how this would all go down.
Shortly after, I could hear my friend’s mother howling through the phone from across the room.
“The Globetrotters!” she said in hysterics, “Not the horses!”
I went from baffled to bonkers, jumping up and down like any kid back then who’d just found out he was going to see the greatest show on hardwood.
You see, back in the ’70s and ’80s (do what you can to imagine a time that long ago…), the Harlem Globetrotters were the biggest sports stars in the world for those in their tween years — back before that word even existed.
There was nothing better than watching Meadowlark Lemon and Hubert “Geese” Ausbie, not to be confused with the 1940s’ Reese “Goose” Tatum (how great are those names?), entrance an entire arena of 20,000 screaming kids with no-look passes and hook shots from what was yet to be known as Steph Curry Country as they bludgeoned their sad-sack, omnipresent opponent, the Washington Generals yet again.
“Sweet Georgia Brown” played from the arena sound system, whistled actually, as the Trotters formed their famous Magical Circle at center court, moving the ball around their bodies and back and forth with a series of no-look passes from all angles. And then there was the bucket of confetti — passed off as a water — strewn into the audience. The trick got you every time, even when you knew it was coming.
And in the middle of every game, there was Curly Neal. His real name was Fred Neal, but because of his shimmering bald dome, he was known as Curly. And at some point in the game, Curly would put on the greatest display of b-ball keep away you had ever seen, sliding about the court on his knees, dribbling the ball just inches above the ground, between his legs as well as between some poor Washington Generals appendages, the ball a frenetic blur. Somehow, despite the twirling and swirling, he’d never lose control of the ball, and that hapless General wouldn’t lay a finger on it. It was handle before we knew what handle was (Imagine Kyrie Irving and Allen Iverson combined). And when he was done, he’d find himself all alone under the basket for an easy layup.
He’d also make these half-court jumpers, so common today in the NBA game, but simply astonishing then — more so when you realize that the crowd didn’t hope he would make it, they expected him to.
“His basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide,” said Globetrotters’ GM Jeff Munn in a statement. “He always made time for his many fans and inspired millions.”
The Globetrotters retired Neal’s No. 22 back in 2008 at Madison Square Garden, joining notables Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain (Did you know he played for them? He wore 13, of course), Marques Haynes (Neal’s dribbling predecessor wore 20), Lemon (36) and Tatum (50).
Globetrotters were not the obscurity they are today. They were international superstars then, and though they may not have been from Harlem, they lived up to the moniker of “Globetrotters”, taking their unique fusion of basketball and three-ring circus around the world. They were on Giligan’s Island – yet somehow got off without the stranded cast knowing – and The Love Boat. They even had their own cartoon.
And of course their games were must-see TV on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
They were as ubiquitous in places as far away as Japan as they were in the States.
And no one was more recognizable or fun to watch than Curly Neal.
He was born in Greensboro, North Carolina on May 12, 1942 and attended Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte. He was never drafted into the NBA but was offered a job by the Trotters in 1963, hanging ’em up 22 years later in 1985. I’d say his professional basketball career worked out just fine.
Meadowlark died five years ago and I imagine Curly Neal taking his spot next to him and Tatum and Haynes in the famous Globetrotter pre-game circle somewhere in some other dimension.
If there’s any positive to take from Neal’s passing it’s the reminder to appreciate the Globetrotter legends that are still with us. Like Geese Ausbie.
So that’s what I’m going to do today: Log on to YouTube and watch as many of these artists from my youth all over again.
And laugh out loud once more about how the first time I saw them in person came to pass.