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The Legacy of Curly Neal and the Old Harlem Globetrotters

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Last Thursday, March 26, Curly Neal passed away at his home in Houston at the age of 77. Neal was a legendary member of the Harlem Globetrotters, the high-flying basketball team and performance act who are known around the world.

While the Globetrotters of today are famous and beloved, they are a far cry from the team Curly joined in 1963. The Globetrotters of old were not just a performance act but a force to be reckoned with on basketball courts across America. Legends of the game have passed through the Globetrotters’ doors and it’s important to remember how much this team from Chicago has done for the game of basketball. 

The Globetrotters were surprisingly not founded in Harlem; they didn’t play a game in Harlem until 42 years after their founding. The Globetrotters were instead formed on the south side of Chicago in 1926 as an all-black basketball team. They were a mostly regional outfit in the early days but by the late 1930s, the Globetrotters were one of the best teams on the planet led by stars like Duke Cumberland and Goose Tatum. Because of segregation in basketball at the time, the Globetrotters were the team to play on for the top black athletes in the country. In 1940, they won the World Professional Basketball Tournament, an annual event held in Chicago throughout the 1940s that was attended by many of the game’s greatest early players, such as famed sharpshooter Bobby McDermott and bespectacled big man George Mikan. 

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Because of the Globetrotters’ performance in events like the World Pro Tournament and outside pressure to desegregate, the first black players joined the NBA in 1950. This included Globetrotters legend Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who was known for his incredible dribbling moves, a precursor to other legendary Harlem ballhandlers like Marques Haynes and Curly Neal himself. Many of Clifton’s signature moves with the Globetrotters, like the behind-the-back pass, have become staples of today’s game. Nat would have a long career in the NBA for the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons before retiring at the end of the 1958 season. 

Even though their monopoly on black players was dwindling, the Globetrotters still attracted top-tier talent.

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And no Globetrotter was ever as talented as Wilt Chamberlain.

Chamberlain was already known as one of the best basketball players on the planet by the time he joined the Globetrotters after three terrific seasons of college basketball at Kansas. He wanted to join the NBA early after his junior year but due to rules at the time was forced to wait a season before joining the league. He spent this year touring with the Globetrotters, including their famous 1959 tour of the Soviet Union. Of course, after his one-year stint with the team, Chamberlain went on to become one of the best players of his era while breaking numerous NBA records. 

By the time of Wilt Chamberlain’s departure, the Globetrotters were in a state of transition. The entertainment factor had always been there but it was now starting to take center stage. That doesn’t mean talented players weren’t still coming through the doors. Curly Neal, who joined in 1963, was not just a gimmick basketball player. During his time at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., he averaged over 23 points per game and was a perennial all-conference guard in the CIAA.

A number of elite players who were blackballed or barred from the NBA for any number of reasons spent some time on the Globetrotters.

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The most famous of these players is Neal’s teammate, Connie Hawkins, who spent four years with the Globetrotters before joining the ABA in 1967. Hawkins was one of the best players of his era and is one of the biggest “what could have been” stories in NBA history. He was not able to start his NBA career until he was 27 after he was finally cleared of any involvement from a point-shaving scandal that happened in 1961. Hawkins had a successful ABA and NBA career, making multiple all-star games and eventually being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Curly Neal was at the forefront of this Globetrotters transition. He combined his exceptional basketball skillset with a passion for entertaining a crowd that served him well during his 23-year Globetrotters tenure. NBA legend Isiah Thomas even said Neal was the man who “taught him how to dribble.”

While today they might be purely entertainment, the Globetrotters’ organization has done so much more for basketball than many people realize. 

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