It’s been difficult to think about anything other than COVID-19 lately, but the passing of an old friend was the kind of distraction that turned my focus to fond memories, not the dreadful warnings and dire predictions of the day.
Few people made me smile more than Curly Neal.
Most know him for his shaved head, infectious smile and an ability to dribble around, through and past would-be defenders for the Harlem Globetrotters.
I knew him as my golf buddy.
We met in Orlando when Pat Williams was trying to convince the NBA to award a franchise to the city. Williams, always the showman, had a way to mark milestones in the number of season ticket orders by using celebrities. Frank Viola, the Minnesota Twins pitcher who was the World Series MVP in 1987 and the American League Cy Young Award winner in 1988, was one of the celebrities Williams paraded in front of the media when the counts reached 1,000, 2,000, 3000 and so on. Tim Raines, Payne Stewart, Lee Corso, Larry Csonka, Otis Birdsong and Curly Neal all played a supporting role in Williams’s masterplan.
Despite his worldwide acclaim, Neal was not only approachable, he did it in a manner where he truly believed you were doing him a favor to say hello. A friendship quickly followed, especially when he found out I had connections to play any of the Walt Disney World golf courses for free. (Those were the good ol’ days.)
Our group was unique. Most people have routine jobs. There was nothing routine about being a sportswriter. Night games, travel and deadlines still left a lot of time during the middle of the day. Neal was retired from the Globetrotters. My father was retired from the U.S. Air Force and our fourth, Greg Sacks, was a NASCAR driver.
It was game on.
What many don’t know is Curly was a decent golfer with an aspiration of playing on the PGA Senior Tour. Crowds and pressure didn’t make him flinch, neither did presidential audiences and kings and queens, so a five-footer wasn’t going to be a problem.
Curly had a couple years to refine his game before turning 50. While he was good enough to win a $2 Nassau against the best ringer any club could offer, professional golf was the only golden ring he couldn’t quite grasp.
A small private school once asked if I knew anyone who could speak at its athletic banquet. One telephone call later, Curly Neal was spinning the ball on his finger at the head table and having a blast. Children laughed and parents sat in joyous disbelief. Curly wasn’t just a basketball player and entertainer. He was genuine and happy. And he was my friend.
Even in death, I will always smile when I think of Curly Neal. I remember his laughter and his never-ending optimism. He loved to make people happy.
“We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known,” Globetrotters general manager Jeff Munn said in a statement March 26 on Twitter. “Curly's basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide.”
His retired red, white and blue No. 22 jersey is hanging from the rafters at basketball’s grandest stage, Madison Square Garden.
Greg Sacks and I often talked about being able to play two or three times a week with guys who brought so much passion and interests to the golf course. Curly was amazed that Greg was comfortable driving a car 210 mph. We were just as amazed at the wizardry Curly displayed in every one of his 6,000 games during his 22-year career with the Globetrotters.
Sacks won the 1985 Firecracker 400 at the Daytona International Speedway in what’s still considered one of stock car’s greatest upsets. Not only did he beat Bill Elliott during the greatest season of Elliott’s career, he did it by more than a half-lap. Curly loved hearing that story.
Greg also played Tom Cruise’s double in the movie “Days of Thunder.” But that’s a story for another day.
For now, though, I’m going to close my eyes, hum “Sweet Georgia Brown” and smile. That’s the way my old friend would have liked it.