For decades, Fred “Curly” Neal entertained massive crowds with his unique combination of humor, athleticism and exaggerated theatrics as the face of the Harlem Globetrotters. Sadly, the team revealed that Neal has transitioned at the age of 77.
“Fred ‘Curly’ Neal—the Harlem Globetrotters icon known worldwide for his trademark shaved head and charismatic smile—passed away this morning in his home outside of Houston at the age of 77,” the Globetrotters tweeted last Thursday.
In 2008, Neal became the fifth Globetrotter to have his jersey retired, joining the prestigious ranks of Wilt Chamberlain, Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon and Goose Tatum at the time, according to ESPN. He also continued to make public appearances for the team as their “Ambassador of Goodwill” and was gifted with a “Legends” ring in 1993 for his “major contributions to the success and the development of the Globetrotters organization.”
From 1963 until 1985, he played over 6,000 games in 97 countries, dazzling audiences with his playful banter and otherworldly ball-handling as one of the most recognizable stars on the team.
“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 team said in a statement. “It was Curly’s magical ball-handling, shooting, charismatic smile and iconic bald head...that made them start to play and fall in love with the game. One of the truly magical dribblers and shooters in basketball history, Neal fittingly played for 22 seasons in the red, white and blue, wearing No. 22.”
“We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known,” Jeff Munn, General Manager of the Globetrotters, said. “His basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide. He always made time for his many fans and inspired millions.”
Neal has also received a tremendous outpouring of love on social media, with friends and fans alike taking a moment to celebrate his legacy as both a humanitarian and entertainer.
In an op-ed published in 2016, Neal reflected on the responsibility that came with being a Harlem Globetrotter during his heyday and the integral role that he and his teammates played in the push for racial harmony.
“Being a Globetrotter, especially during that time, was as much a responsibility as it was a job,” he wrote. “We weren’t just entertainers. I truly believe that we helped ease many of the tensions that pulled at the country. It didn’t matter if you were black, white or whatever—laughing and enjoying our games made those barriers disappear.”
Neal’s official cause of death has yet to be announced, but rest in power to a true icon and basketball legend.