Fred “Curly” Neal, the bald-headed, ball-handling trickster who was a core member of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team during the act’s peak in popularity, has died at the age of 77. The Harlem Globetrotters confirmed that Neal died at his home in Houston, Texas Thursday. No cause of death was provided.
“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 Globetrotters tweeted. “It was Curly’s magical ball-handling, shooting, charismatic smile and iconic bald head, in more than 6,000 games in 97 countries, that made them start to play and fall in love with the game.”
Nicknamed “Curly” after the similarly head-shaven member of the Three Stooges, the limber-limbed Neal served as the team’s point guard, ball-handling magician, long-distance-shooting extraordinaire and face of the franchise for more than two decades. After retiring from the sport in 1985, Neal remained a beloved ambassador for the Globetrotters.
At the Globetrotters’ peak in the 1970s, the basketball team crossed into pop culture, with Neal and his teammates appearing as themselves in a short-lived 1974 Saturday morning TV show as well as episodes of The Love Boat, The White Shadow and the TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. Neal’s character — voiced by actor Stu Gilliam — also appeared alongside his fellow Globetrotters in an eponymous Hanna-Barbera cartoon as well as a guest spot in a famed episode of Scooby-Doo.
Neal was one of five Globetrotters — including basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and Neal’s longtime teammates Meadowlark Lemon and Marques Haynes, who both died in 2015 — to have their jersey numbers retired by the organization. Neal, a star high school player in Raleigh, North Carolina before leading the team at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte prior to his Globetrotters tenure, was also inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
“We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known,” said 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.”