The sound of “Sweet Georgia Brown” took on a somber tone today, as Fred “Curly” Neal, arguably the most famous player ever to suit up for the Harlem Globetrotters, passed away at the age of 77.
Harlem Globetrotters Legend Dies
Neal, whose nickname derived from his bald head ala’ Curly Howard of Three Stooges fame, was a member of the legendary basketball team from 1963 to 1985, entertaining kids and adults alike in more than 6,000 contests around the world. His big personality and excellent ball-handling skills made him a favorite among fans.
But his pop culture appearances off the court were just as celebrated. He joined several of his Globetrotters teammates to battle robots in the TV movie, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. He sailed on an episode of The Love Boat, and he was also one of the Globetrotters featured prominently on the Hanna-Barbera animated cartoon about the team. He also voiced three appearances as himself in a trio of Scooby-Doo episodes.
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Neal hailed from Greensboro, N.C., and played college ball at Johnson C. Smith University in nearby Charlotte. While there, he led the Golden Bulls with 23.1 points a game and was named an All-CIAA guard.
After graduating, he had several offers from NBA teams but was intrigued by joining the Harlem Globetrotters. In 2008, he told Bullz-Eye.com that he just wanted to be a professional athlete, and he considered the team a great way to have a career.
“If I had gone to the NBA, I knew I would have made the team because I had prepared myself over the summers and over the years to be a professional athlete,” he said during that interview.
“I was 21 years old when I joined the Globetrotters. [Globetrotter founder] Abe Saperstein sent me a nice letter—red, white and blue stationary—and offered me to come try out amongst 125 guys for his basketball team. They chose five players, and I happened to be in that lucky five.” The Globetrotters retired Neal’s No. 22 jersey in 2008.