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Harlem Globetrotters legend Curly Neal dies at 77

Neal was known as a magical ball-handler and one of most dynamic dribblers and shooters in basketball history.

HOUSTON — Editor's note: The attached video originally aired in February.

Fred “Curly” Neal, the Harlem Globetrotters icon known worldwide for his trademark shaved head and charismatic smile, has died. 

Neal passed away Thursday morning in his home outside of Houston at the age of 77.

Neal was known as a magical ball-handler and one of most dynamic dribblers and shooters in basketball history.

Between 1963 and 1985, it was Curly Neal and the Harlem Globetrotters who first introduced the sport of basketball to millions of people around the world for the first time.

He played in more than 6,000 games in 97 countries. Neal fittingly played for 22 seasons in the red, white and blue, wearing No. 22.

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“We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known,” said Globetrotters General Manager Jeff Munn. “His basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide. He always made time for his many fans and inspired millions.”

On Feb. 15, 2008, Neal became just the fifth Globetrotter in the team's history to have his jersey number retired, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon and Goose Tatum. 

Neal's famous number 22 was lifted to the rafters during a special ceremony at New York's Madison Square Garden.  Since then, there have been a total of eight numbers retired.

Neal was part of one of the most extraordinary eras in the team's history, appearing on several popular television programs and specials, including “ABC's Wide World of Sports,” “CBS Sports Spectacular,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine,” “The Love Boat,” “The White Shadow” and “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan‘s Island.” 

He also appeared in numerous national TV commercials and was immortalized in animation on “The Harlem Globetrotters” cartoon series and on episodes of “Scooby Doo.”

After an outstanding career at James B. Dudley High School in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., Neal starred at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., where he averaged over 23 points per game and led his team to the CIAA title his senior year. He was inducted into the 2008 class of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, along with the renowned Roy Williams, coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Neal, who would have turned 78 on May 19, was also a recipient of the Harlem Globetrotters' prestigious “Legends” ring, presented to those who have made a major contribution to the success and the development of the Globetrotters organization. Each honoree exemplifies the Harlem Globetrotters’ humanitarian contributions and it’s the second highest honor a former player can receive outside of jersey retirement.

In the latter years of his life, Neal continued to make public and promotional appearances for the Globetrotters, bringing smiles to a new generation of fans.