He hasn't been a part of the team's line-up for more than two decades, but there are only a handful of names as immediately identified with the Harlem Globetrotters as the legendary Curly Neal. Born Fred Neal, our man Curly joined the ‘Trotters in 1963, and he dribbled and shot his way to superstardom, which is why he's one of only five alumni of the organization to earn the honor of having his number – 22 – retired from the roster. We spoke with Neal on the occasion of the upcoming MyNetworkTV special, "The Harlem Globetrotters: A New Generation," airing Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. (EST). At times, he seemed more interested in talking up that new generation rather than speaking of his own accomplishments, as you'll soon see, but when you're dealing with a guy as notoriously nice as Neal, would you really expect any less?
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Curly, how are you doing?
Curly Neal: Hey, Will, how are you doing this afternoon?
BE: Not too bad.
BE: It seems like you've had a busy day of interviews today.
CN: A busy day today, yesterday, and as soon as I got off that plane! But it's fun. It's good to see people over the years, and I had a chance to go out and see the Phoenix Suns and the Indiana Pacers the other night, which was quite exciting. A lot of hugs and handshakes and stuff.
BE: I'm sure. Well, I don't know if they told you, but I was killing time until you called by watching clips of "The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine" on YouTube.
CN: Oh, man, that was a fun thing. I just finished talking to a teammate of mine: Connie Hawkins.
BE: Oh, okay, yeah!
CN: Yeah, he was my roommate when we were with the Globetrotters in the early 60s.
BE: So I got the news brief that your jersey is going to be retired next month.
CN: I'm very elated. I'm happy about it.
BE: I'd say it certainly puts you in pretty good company, but how old does it make you feel?
CN: Yeah, man, I know! I thought maybe I'd get in before I get in that wheelchair or rocking chair, you know what I mean?
BE: (laughing) Exactly.
CN: But it's a fine thing for my family and I. After playing for 22 years with the Globetrotters, it's a lot of fun and laughter, and, you know, I really enjoyed it.
BE: I went to college in your original neck of the woods: Averett College, in Danville, Virginia.
CN: Danville? You weren't too far from Charlotte.
BE: Not too far. And I know you went to college there, but you went to high school in Greensboro, didn't you?
CN: Yeah, (James B.) Dudley High School.
BE: When I was at Averett, we used to take weekend trips to Greensboro all the time.
CN: Okay, now, we used to play…was it Lincoln High School? Langston?
CN: Yeah. I use to play against the Townes boys. You know the Townes?
BE: Maybe the name? (Writer's note: In retrospect, I have absolutely no idea who the Townes boys are, and Google has provided no further insight.)
CN: I had a couple guys that went to college with me that played football who were named Townes, too.
BE: And then you went from Greensboro to J.C.S.U.
CN: Johnson C. Smith University.
BE: Right. And I think it's fair to say that you did pretty well, basketball-wise.
CN: I did pretty good. Pretty good for a little guy.
BE: Did you transition straight from college ball to the Globetrotters, or was there a break?
CN: Right out of college. I was 21 years old when I joined the Globetrotters. I had five offers, you know: the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, St. Louis Hawks, Baltimore Bullets and the Globetrotters. Abe Saperstein sent me a nice letter – red, white and blue stationary – and offered me to come to Chicago, Illinois, at Depaw University, and try out amongst 125 guys for his basketball team. They chose five players, and I happened to be in that lucky five.
BE: How familiar were you with them before trying out? Because I know there were actually a couple movies about them in the early 1950s, but I don't really know how high their profile was on a national level.
CN: I knew bits and pieces of it, but I wanted to be a professional athlete, regardless of the Globetrotters or whatever. 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. And, you know, baseball was one of my first loves, also.
BE: Had you taught yourself any trick shots before you joined the ‘Trotters?
CN: No, I just learned how to put the ball in the basket. I was All College, All American, All CIAA at Johnson C. Smith, and I averaged 23 to 24 points a game.
BE: Not too bad.
CN: Not too bad for a young guy.
BE: You played over 6,000 games with the Globetrotters
CN: 6,000 plus!
BE: 6,000 plus. I don't know if that's a record, but I've got to think it's in the upper tier, anyway.
CN: Yes, it is.
BE: You got your nickname because of your shaved head, but why did you shave your head in the first place? I'd like to think it was something to do with aerodynamics.
CN: You know, I did that when I was 12 years old. The kids in the neighborhood, we decided to do something mischievous. My mom didn't like it at first. She said, "What happened to you?" And I said, "I went to sleep in the barber's chair." But, anyway, we did that and went to school, and the principal sent a couple of us home, but I've been doing it every since. I went all through junior high school, high school, college and then, when I got with the Globetrotters, my coach, Bobby Milton, said, "We're going to call you Curly." I said, "I don't know why, because the Three Stooges are nothing but cartoons," but then I said, "Okay, that's fine with me." So it's stayed with me all this time.
BE: Did you have a favorite routine, or were they all equally fun for you?
CN: Well, I worked as a scorer, as a player, and then one of the main dribblers got hurt after I did my international tour with the Globetrotters. Meadowlark (Lemon) and I joined up for the European tour, but one of the other dribblers was hurt, so Abe Saperstein asked me if I could try to dribble and, you know, to try to work on it. I said, "Sure, Abe, I can give it a try." I played baseball as a kid; I knew how to slide the bases, but it was kind of difficult sliding and dribbling to control the basketball. But I scarred and bruised my knees up for a couple of months, and then I got it down pat myself. I worked on a new routine…you know, to slide from end to end…and just kept working over the summers. You know, even though we played 300-plus games a year, I would still sometimes go home in the summer – we have a couple of months off – and practice. So I've been a dribbler for 22 years.
BE: Did you pull off any shots that actually even made you go, "I can't believe I pulled that off"?
CN: Well, I practiced. You know, I was shooting from half court. Well, in college, I was shooting three pointers before the three point line was there. Then I came back to the Globetrotters, and Bobby Milton taught me how to shoot the two hand set shot. You know, I used to see Bob Cousy and those guys, Slater Martin, George Yardley, shooting two hand set shots. So I worked on it and I began to perfect it, and then I put it in the game. Then one time on "ABC's Wide World of Sports," Howard Cosell was our commentator, and I made three in a row from half court. I don't know if you've seen that or not.
BE: Yeah, I think I've seen the clip.
CN: Yeah, and I just managed to make them. We were playing, like, seven days a week, and I would make about 10 during the week…two each night, or something like that. That is a crowd pleaser, you know. It's a show within itself. Just like when Meadowlark dishes that hook shot from half court. Now that's practice. Because we used to go out and practice together.
BE: Obviously, you've been retired for awhile, but you continue to sort of serve as a "goodwill ambassador" for the team.
CN: Oh, yeah, we're family oriented, and I do a lot of things for the Special Olympics, the Boys and Girls club, the military. I did a couple of camps over in Germany, Italy and France for the military, and underprivileged kids, handicapped kids. Anything that deals with children and families, you know, I would always like to give it back to them. Because God gave to me, so I give it back to them.
BE: So I guess you didn't even hesitate when they asked you to contribute to this special.
CN: Oh, no, not at all. It'll give me a chance to mingle with the young guys on the team and try to instill in them some of the things that we learned to make the show better. We were totally athletes first, and the showmanship came along with practice, but we've got to get together with the younger guys and give them some ideas of what we went through and try to better the show and keep this tradition going for another 82 years.
BE: Speaking of the young guys, I have to figure that you've had some future NBA players approach you over the years for tips, but have any of them gone on to be the big names?
CN: NBA players? Earl Monroe, Earl the Pearl; we played against each other in college. Nick Anderson, you know, the Orlando Magic. Oh, a lot of guys. Well, Dr. J and I used to play golf tournaments down with the Magic. Shaq…I was down there during the time Shaq was there. Shaq came through there, Penny Hardaway…they had all those guys, you know. Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace…you know, they traded all those guys away, and I can't understand it. I was there for 12 years. I was just doing the NBA stay-in-school program with the elementary kids. I went through all that, but they wanted a few tips. I would show them formation with the ball, no problem; it was a gift to me, so I just gave it to them.
BE: I mentioned that I watched the "Popcorn Machine," but I even have a soft spot for the Globetrotters' "Gilligan's Island" movie.
CN: Oh, man, wonderful. We had a good time with Scatman (Crothers), and Mary Ann, Ginger and the Professor. It was a good show. I really enjoyed that. But, you know, we've got a couple of guys on the team now, like "Scooter" Christensen, who…Shane "Scooter" Christensen, he's the number one dribbler now, and I passed the torch down to him. They played the game out in Sacramento to start the season off, and, man, ball handling? Man, he is superb. So I told him he needed to work on his three point shot and so forth, to make himself better. He is super with the ball handling, you know, the dribbling, the spinning on the head, and all that, but you've got to have something else. Something more. I'm trying to make him like…get it back to, like, how Meadowlark and I was, you know. We lasted for over 20-some years, and it was "Goose" Tatum and Marques Haynes before us. So now we've got a guy by the name of "Special K;" he's a showman, he's like Meadowlark, from Panama. He's got a lovable personality, very articulate, and he shoots the half court hook shot. So I told them guys they've got to go out and practice, you know. We've got to make one at least once a night, or once every other night. But they will. They listen. They take my tips, and I just try to help them anyway I can.
BE: You mentioned Meadowlark. Do you still keep in touch with him, or Geese, or any of the other guys?
CN: I talked to Meadowlark right before Christmas and wished him a Merry Christmas. As a matter of fact, I'm getting ready to go to the airport in about an hour; I'll call him and tell him, next time out there, maybe we'll have dinner together. We play in a lot of celebrity golf tournaments together, but we keep in touch. He's about the only one I keep in touch with. Meadowlark and…well, Jackie Jackson. He played with us for about 15 years, and he lives in a place out in Atlanta.
BE: You've also been immortalized in animation on several occasions. I know you didn't actually do your own voice for anything, but did you enjoy seeing yourself?
CN: Yes I did. We did…it was really four sets of cartoons. We did two sets with Bobby Joe, Meadowlark, "Geese", myself, J.C. and Pablo. And then after that came "The Super Globetrotters," and another management took over. Remember that one? My head was like a basketball? And then there was when we were on "Scooby-Doo." I picked up…Brett Meister is the vice president of operations here in Phoenix, and he gave me a tape of Scooby-Doo with the Globetrotters. I told my grandson – he'll be five next week – I said, "Look here, I'm bringing you something nice; I'm bringing you a tape." He said, "Can't you come now and bring the tape?" But, you know, it will be fun to watch it with him, because I've got him spinning the ball and doing some tricks and stuff with it, and none of my other kids really played basketball or sports. I look at my grandkids, and I watch them grow, and it's a joy, because I didn't get to see my other kids grow up, because I was on the road a couple months out of the year.
BE: Did you happen to see the Globetrotters' appearance on "Futurama?"
CN: Now, when was that?
BE: It was a few years ago. The show takes place in the future, in the year 3000, and they're still touring, but they're also experts in physics.
CN: (laughs) No, I didn't see that!
BE: Oh, you need to check that out.
CN: What time does it come on?
BE: They actually just put the show on Comedy Central, in reruns.
CN: Oh, okay, I need to check that out!
BE: It's very, very funny. So, do you ever get tired of hearing people whistle "Sweet Georgia Brown" to you?
CN: Oh, no, no. There is no reason to. No, I love it; it's just a part of me, you know. Hey, you know, we've got another showman over there named Paul Gaffney. I don't know if you've heard of him or not.
BE: I've heard the name, I think, yeah.
CN: Well, he's a showman. We have, like, two units – east coast and west coast – and he's been involved over 15 years, so he's very exciting. And there's another guy by the name of Eugene Edgerson. Are you in Phoenix?
BE: No, actually, I'm in Norfolk, Virginia.
CN: Oh, you're in Norfolk? We use to play at the Scope!
BE: Absolutely you did; many, many times.
CN: Yeah! But, anyway, this kid went to the University of Arizona, and he and I have been doing public relations together, you know, and he's a wonderful guy. He weighs about 250, 6-7 and he's got an afro about three feet tall. (laughing) So he's an inspiration to the team, and to me, too, because he is very articulate and he does a good job.
BE: Do you still tour with them, even though you're retired? Like, on the sidelines or whatever?
CN: I did up in Sacramento, when they opened the season up, and then last week I was in Kansas City for a few games. And now I'm in Phoenix, doing some public relations, because they are playing tonight and tomorrow. And then I go off to San Jose next week, and Los Angeles. So it's bits and pieces, because I work for other companies, too.
BE: Well, if you want to come out to Norfolk, y'all are playing here at the end of February.
CN: I would love to come to Norfolk. I have some good memories from there. I remember Julius Erving and them use to play there; the old ABA. And "Sweet" Lou Dunbar…I don't know if you know him or not, but he played 24 years for the Globetrotters and went to the University of Houston, so he's one of the legendary Globetrotters who will be there in San Jose with me. If he's in Norfolk, too, take care of him!
BE: Excellent. Alright, well, I will try and keep you on your schedule…although I guess that's pretty well shot now, anyway!
CN: I look forward to seeing you, Will.
BE: Absolutely. Great talking to you, and congratulations.
CN: Alright. Thank you. Great talking to you, and God bless!