Curly Neal put the dazzle into the Harlem Globetrotters

The NBA would not be where it is today without the contributions to the sport of basketball by the likes of Fred “Curly” Neal and the Harlem Globetrotters.  The Harlem Globetrotters is one of just six teams inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

The spectacular mesmerizing dribbling style of Neal has played a large part in the Globetrotters’ worldwide fame.

When you think of the Harlem Globetrotters, legendary names such as Neal, Meadowlark Lemon, Goose Tatum, Wilt Chamberlain and Marques Haynes come to mind. Flight Time Lang and Big Easy Lofton see it as an honor to be able to even to have the chance to be mentioned in the same sentence as these longtime basketball heroes.

Harlem Globetrotters
The legendary Fred “Curly” Neal dribbled his way into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with the Harlem Globetrotters./Photo Courtesy of the Harlem Globetrotters

The challenge for athletes like Big Easy Lofton and Flight Time Lang, and the rest of the current crop of the world renowned Harlem Globetrotters is not only following in their predecessors’ razzle dazzle footpaths, but to give fans the same type of unadulterated entertainment without skipping a beat.

It’s kind of hard to follow behind a legend. It’s even more difficult to do if that iconic phenomenon happens to be a corporation which plays with a red, white and blue basketball, put smiles on children faces and have the undistinguishable clout to travel to 120 countries and meet and greet dignitaries such as the Pope and the Queen of England.

“I like to look at old videos of Globetrotters like Marques Haynes and Curly Neal,” Lang said. “I’ve had the good fortune of playing with Curley Boo Johnson over the years, and he taught me a lot. He’s the best dribbler I have ever witnessed first-hand.”

Big Easy Lofton never got the opportunity to get a close up view of seeing the Harlem Globetrotters play live while growing up in New Orleans. That’s because his father worked long hours just to keep put food on the table and a keep a roof over his family’s head.

Big Easy Lofton has taken a queue from his dad and is using this opportunity playing for the Harlem Globetrotters to be the same blessing to his own children, even though he is on the road away from home most of the time.

“He worked really hard each day and night for my family,” Lofton said. “Sometimes I did not see him for days, because he would leave at four in the morning and come back at eleven at night from work-all because he did not want my little brother and I to have to put in those kinds of hours later in life.”

Part of the reason why the clown princes of basketball has a place in the Hall of Fame is that the Harlem Globetrotters just didn’t play the sport; they opened doors as pioneers for future generations of basketball players.

When Jim Crow bigotry and segregation abounded against African Americans, the Harlem Globetrotters kicked down those racial barriers with laughter, wizardry-like basketball skills and a dash of home grown fun.

Harlem Globetrotters
Curly Neal is often described as one of basketball’s all-time dribblers./Photo Courtesy of Harlem Globetrotters

“We were pioneers in basketball; we were a professional team going over to Europe in the 1950s and 60s,” the now retired Neal said in a 2010 interview. “The NBA wasn’t even thought of then. We opened the doors for those guys-Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt even played for us. We’re proud of it.”

He is also proud of the fact he was part of a group of players that took the Harlem Globetrotters from being great athletes to household names.  Neal, Neal, who had his jersey No. 22 retired in 2008 at Madison Square Garden, joins only Goose Tatum, Wilt Chamberlain, Meadowlark Lemon and Marques Haynes in the pantheon of Globetrotters’ history.

A true Harlem Globetrotter and basketball great, Neal said he enjoyed the excitement of putting a smile on other people’s faces.

“It has been rewarding,” Neal said. “It was an exciting thing, being able to travel all over the world. I was really excited for that-and just playing the game of basketball-I love it. So that had me hooked; the love of basketball and the type of organization they have. We were going to perform in front of people all over the world. They loved us and we tried to give them a great show each night.”

The Harlem Globetrotters have always provided a good, entertaining show to the masses. Neal was certainly a large part of that appeal.  His uniqueness to the magical world of the Harlem Globetrotters was his out-of-this-world dribbling ability.

Playing 22 seasons and in over 6,000 games for the Harlem Globetrotters, Neal made dribbling a mystical art form on the court. There was no better basketball dribbler than Neal during his heyday. Nor has there been one since. If you didn’t like basketball and showed up at one of the Harlem Globetrotters game live, you’d be hooked on Neal’s dribbling exhibition.

Neal’s style of playing basketball was more representative of the adoring grace that comes with executing a ballet twist or watching a conductor work his orchestra in symphonic harmony.  Neal, who played in 97 countries across the world, said he simply worked at getting better.

“It was a lot of dedication, just trying to be the best,” Neal said. “Even though we’d be gone most of the year, I would back and still practice. I wanted to give the fans something different each year. It was Just practice, a lot of ball handling techniques. We just wanted to be the best we could be in entertainment; when we came out, we wanted people to come away with a smile on their face. It’s worth it. Once you see us you’ll want to see us again.”

Curly Neal enjoyed a 22-year run playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. Neal was a member of the Globetrotters from 1963 to 1985, playing in over 6,000 basketball games. Neal and the Harlem Globetrotters are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

This article is a re-post of the original story written by Dennis J. Freeman in 2011

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