ORLANDO, Fla. — Pat Williams, when he was starting the Orlando Magic franchise from scratch all those years ago, was looking for a fun, friendly, famous face to get people excited about the push for an expansion basketball team in football-fanatical Central Florida.
Little did he know at the time that one of the most legendary basketball players on the planet — the great Curly Neal of the iconic Harlem Globetrotters — had retired and was living in Orlando.
“We were just getting the expansion effort started in June of 1986 when Curly approached me and said, ‘Anything I can do to help, just give me a call,’ ” Williams recalled Friday. “Well, we sure took advantage of that. Whenever we would have a public gathering or announcement, we’d roll out Curly. We eventually hired him as our first community ambassador.
“Curly was one of a kind. He could light up any room. Just hand him a basketball and he would go to work. He would put on an abbreviated show à la what he had done for years as a Globetrotter. And it would absolutely delight people, get kids excited and he always left the place with people feeling good about themselves and feeling good about the Magic.”
Curly Neal, whose bald head and ball-handling artistry, made him one of the most famous members of the Harlem Globetrotters during their barnstorming heyday, died at his home near Houston earlier this week at the age of 77.
It was sad news for those of us who grew up in the 1970s when Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon, the clown prince of basketball, were bigger celebrities than the NBA stars of the day. When you heard their upbeat theme song — “Sweet Georgia Brown” — we kids would whistle along, snap our fingers and giddily dance around the living room.
It was appointment television when the Globetrotters made their annual appearance on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and entire families would sit in front of the TV and laugh and laugh and laugh some more at their basketball slapstick. Even though we knew what was going to happen when the Globetrotters played their designated-stooge opponents — the Washington Generals — we howled every time they performed their fake water-bucket gag.
And, oh my God, how we would marvel at Curly’s ball-handling virtuosity. Part of every Globetrotters’ show featured Curly dribbling around and through the entire Washington Generals’ team; acrobatically sliding on his knees, never losing control of the ball or picking up his dribble even when he was on his back; dribbling the ball through a bumbling, fumbling and frustrated defender’s legs; and then easily scoring on an unencumbered layup.
Step aside, Steph Curry.
Step aside, Kyrie Irving.
Step aside, Allen Iverson.
The greatest dribbler of all-time was, is and always will be Fred “Curly” Neal.
He had handles before they were even called handles.
“The Globetrotters were huge in the ’60s and ’70s when I was growing up,” recalls former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, now an analyst for TNT and NBA TV. “The two guys everyone wanted to see was Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. Lemon was a comedic genius and was fun to see, but Neal was mesmerizing. What he could do with the ball was incredible. As a small guard growing up, I wanted to be able to handle the ball like Curly did. I never got there, but it was still great to see what was possible.”
How big were the Globetrotters back in the day? Put it this way, I was glued to the boob tube when the cartoon series “Scooby-Doo Meets the Harlem Globetrotters” debuted in the early 1970s. And then the Globetrotters had their own Saturday morning cartoon series. And who will ever forget the made-for-TV movie: “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.”
“For many, many years, NBA teams would book the Globetrotters to play doubleheaders,” Williams remembers. “When I got to Chicago (as the general manager in 1969), we would book the ’Trotters as the preliminary game and the Bulls would play the second game. That went on all over the league, and those were the night you could expect a sellout.”
But when Curly and Meadowlark retired, the Globetrotters were never ever the same. They went bankrupt a couple of times and have struggled to regain their popularity in today’s crowded sports and entertainment world.
Several years ago, when I was a columnist at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, I got the chance to be an honorary coach for the Globetrotters when they were trying to make a comeback. It struck me then that it’s not the Globetrotters who have changed; it’s the globe that has changed.
The world is just different now.
These days, the Globetrotters aren’t really that much more distinctive than what we see in the NBA on a nightly basis.
The Globetrotters traveled on almost every possession. And so does LeBron.
The Globetrotters wowed us with acrobatic dunks. And so does Aaron Gordon.
The Globetrotters wore crazy, colorful uniforms. And so does every NBA team.
The Globetrotters verbally abused and ridiculed referees. And so does every NBA coach.
The Globetrotters taunted and trash-talked their opponents. And so does Draymond Green. And Kevin Durant. And Russell Westbrook. And …
“The whole NBA is ‘Showtime’ now,’ ” former Globetrotter Sweet Lou Dunbar told me that night in Jacksonville all those years ago. “They used to say we were hot dogs, but now everybody does what we do.”
Maybe so, but I still miss Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon.
I don’t know about you, but in these bleak, unnerving times, I desperately want to hear “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Let’s all YouTube it, whistle along, snap our fingers and dance around the living room together.
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