I’m saddened to hear of the death of Harlem Globetrotters legend Curly Neal at age 77, and reminded of two instances when he and I were in the same building — first when I was a boy, then later as an adult.
After watching Curly, Meadowlark Lemon, Geese Ausbie, and other Globetrotters make regular appearances on ABC’s “Wide World Of Sports” (in which they always beat Red Klotz and his Washington Generals), I begged my father to take me to see them in person. He finally relented. We didn’t have great seats, but I didn’t care.
Having only seen them on TV in short spurts, I was amazed that they played a regulation-length game that took almost two hours. The time, of course, was the only thing that went according to the rules. The Globies pulled off all their usual tricks — the confetti in the bucket, driving the referee crazy, pulling down the shorts of their opponents, and Meadowlark’s non-stop banter. But in between those stunts, they proved that they were really good basketball players.
All of that was fun, but I kept my eye on Curly, waiting for him to break out his signature dribbling prowess — and he did not disappoint. When I noticed him go to the sidelines during a timeout and put on kneepads, I knew he was about to go crazy with the ball. And did he ever! He put on a stunning display of ball handling, sliding along the floor and coming to a stop on his knees, all without missing a bounce. Then he got up and did it again for the fans on the other side of the arena, finishing by dribbling through the legs of one of the Generals and driving down the lane to make an uncontested layup. Curly also sank a couple of long-distance shots from near half-court that arced high in the air and hit nothing but net. I noticed that Dad, who never cared about sports of any kind, looked almost as impressed as I was, and we exchanged a “Whoa!” or two while watching Curly do his thing.
I got a chance to tell this story to Curly about twenty years later. I was doing a morning radio show in Washington, DC. He was no longer playing, but still worked for the Globetrotters, traveling ahead to cities all over the country to promote their upcoming performances. My producer managed to snag him for an in-studio performance, and I was almost speechless when he walked in. He looked the same — shaved head and big, wide grin — as he took his place in front of my guest microphone.
I knew as I shared my memory with him that he’d heard the same thing hundreds of times from other boys and girls who had grown up and remained fans of his, yet he was completely gracious and a pleasure to spend time with. I knew from the phone calls I received from listeners that Curly helped sell a lot of tickets to their games in DC that weekend. He was as great a spokesman for the Globetrotters as he had been a player, propping up the then-current roster as if each member had been part of the team’s heyday. I went to see them at the Capital Center the next night, and sure enough, they were very good — and even had a good ball handler who copied Curly’s moves.
About fifteen years later, after we’d moved to St. Louis, I saw that the Globetrotters were coming to town. I contacted their office to see if Curly could return to my show, but he was fully retired by then. Still, I got tickets and took my daughter, who was probably about the same age as when my father took me. She wasn’t as familiar with the Globetrotters, and I didn’t spoil any of the surprises so she could experience it all for the first time in person. She loved it, and I was glad to pass the experience down to her.
But if she’d only been able to see Curly in his prime — like in this video the Globetrotters posted for his 74th birthday in 2016…