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 said 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, a 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.
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