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Kyrie Irving. Allen Iverson. Isiah Thomas. Steph Curry. Jason Williams. Mention those names together, and it evokes images of some of the NBA’s greatest dribblers. Each player took the act of dribbling and turned it into art. Sadly, Curly Neal, the dribbling specialist for the Harlem Globetrotters and one of basketball’s original dribbling artist, who inspired so many, died this week.

The Harlem Globetrotters 

Unlike today, where you can watch every NBA game and most college basketball games, back in the 1970s, when you had a choice of three or four channels if you were lucky, there was often just one choice for basketball. And it happened on weekends when you turned on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and watched basketball action with the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters.

Fans tuned in to watch stars Meadowlark Lemon and his famous hook shot and no-look passes, and Curly Neal, the always smiling bald-headed dribbling specialist who would run circles around the opponent, the Washington Generals, and make long-distance shots.

The Globetrotters regularly brought their skills and humor to the millions watching on television and those who attended their touring shows at venues around the world. Each contest, the crowd marveled at the basketball skills displayed and wondered which audience members might be on the receiving end of the bucket of water or confetti.

The team, which first started in 1926, consisted of a mix of former basketball players. One of the most well-known players was Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the Globetrotters before he starred in the NBA.

Marques Haynes also starred on the team in the 1950s, and later in the 1970s, and is considered by many to be the greatest dribbler of all time. Haynes became the first Globetrotter ever inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Haynes also had a big influence on Curly Neal.

Who was Curly Neal?

Fred Neal attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina from 1959 to 1963 where he played basketball and averaged 23.1 points a game. He received honors as a guard in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

After all the NBA teams passed on drafting him, he opted to try out for the Globetrotters. It was a decision that would change his life. Soon after joining the team, he received the nickname Curly, which was in reference to another popular bald character at the time, Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. The nickname and bald head combined made him one of the most recognizable Globetrotters in the team’s history. 

Neal played in more than 6,000 games over 22 years for the Globetrotters and could do things with the basketball most hadn’t ever seen. He dribbled between his legs, behind his back, between his legs and behind his back while on his knees. There was nothing he couldn’t do with a basketball in his hands. 

Neal’s ball-handling skills and his ability to make long-distance shots, served as a main attraction to the millions who watched on television or attended the traveling shows around the world. It also caught the attention of some up-and-coming athletes.

Neal’s impact on so many others

Many of those watching as children turned out to be NBA superstars, and in some cases, mimicked Neal’s dribbling style and long shots. This week some of his most-famous followers took to Twitter to speak about Neal and the effect he had on their games, and more importantly, their lives.

“For those who say the game has evolved? I say what’s old is new again! Distance shot-making and dribbling is back!! #CurlyNeal and #MarcusHaynes taught me how to dribble.”

NBA Hall of Famer and one of basketball’s greatest dribblers Isiah Thomas

Hard to express how much joy Curly Neal brought to my life growing up. RIP to a legend….”

Former NBA player and current Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr.

Women’s basketball legend Nancy Lieberman, who played for the Generals against the Globetrotters in 1988, said Neal’s game was revolutionary. 

“Oh my gosh, he revolutionized ball handling. Everything you see Kyrie Irving doing and Steph Curry doing now, all of it started with the Trotters. The Trotters made dribbling a show.”

And what a show it was. Thanks Curly, for so many wonderful memories.