Fred "Curly" Neal, the Harlem Globetrotters guard whose dazzling dribbling and fondness for midfield shots entertained several generations of basketball fans, died. He died Thursday at his home near Houston at age 77, the Globetrotters announced. No cause was given.
Neal's shaved head and basketball excellence made him one of the faces of the Globetrotters, a traveling exhibition team known for mixing comedy with his excellent basketball skills. Neal, who earned the nickname "Curly" by joining the team, was part of more than 6,000 games in his career spanning from 1963 to 1985 for the Globetrotters.
The team's antics highlighted Neal's immense talents, particularly in a stationary piece in which he dribbled around a hapless defender, falling to his knees and passing the ball before claiming it and resuming the game of cat and mouse. It usually ends with Neal throwing a rebound pass through the defender's legs for a layup.
Neal was also a frequent participant in the infamous "water bucket" prank, in which he washed a teammate with a cup of water, only to be chased down the court by the "angry" player, culminating in a Confetti rain down on someone in the audience.
The bits and basketball skills displayed at a time when the NBA was not a regular TV attraction made the Globetrotters a staple of ABC. Wide world of sports shown on weekends in the 1960s and 1970s. Those appearances also spawned a lively Globetrotters show and numerous guest star appearances. Neal himself appeared in Superboy, the ship of love, a Gilligan's Island TV movie and The white shadow, among other shows. Animated Neal even teamed up with Scooby-Doo in a series.
"His basketball skills were unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile made families around the world happy," Jeff Munn, general manager of the Globetrotters, said in a statement Thursday. "He always made time for his many fans and inspired millions."
Frederick Neal was born on May 19, 1942 in Greensboro, North Carolina, and played at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, earning honors from the All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Despite his talent, he was not drafted and was unable to join an NBA team, much to his disappointment.
An opportunity arose with the Globetrotters, and Neal was chosen to succeed Marques Haynes as the team's chief player. In 2008, the Globetrotters removed Neal's No. 22 in a ceremony at Madison Square Garden.