Sometimes you would have to wait out the cliff diving from Acapulco, or the Penn Relays, or a soap-box derby from some small town you never heard of, or a log-rolling event, maybe a little demolition derby. That was OK. That was the surcharge in those glorious days of “Wide World of Sports.”
There were seven channels to choose from (including PBS), so it wasn’t like we had that big a buffet to choose from. So you’d see the poor ski jumper fall on his head again. You’d hear Jim McKay talk about “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports … the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat …”
Actually, the agony was waiting on those Saturday afternoons for when the Globetrotters game promised all week would start. It didn’t matter that it was all tape delay, spoon fed in segments a few minutes at a time, the Globies throttling the Washington Generals again in Miami, or Buffalo, or Phoenix, or Atlanta. We’d gobble up every second.
Some of us were Meadowlark Lemon guys. We were the ones who drove our CYO coaches crazy attempting half-court hook shots before and after every practice. The rest of us were Curly Neal guys: Curly, with the bald head and the permanent smile, spinning the ball effortlessly on his finger, dribbling the ball on a string, keeping that dribble alive even as he went to his knees time after time after time.
How many skinned knees did you get after “Wide World of Sports” was over, pretending you were Curly in your driveway, or the playground? Thanks to Curly, knee pads were a must. Thanks to Curly, we all wanted to be point guards.
“All I ever wanted,” he said a few years ago, “was to bring people joy who wanted to watch us play. I’m pretty sure I did that.”
He did. He died Wednesday at age 77, succumbing to the aftereffects of a stroke, and that means that the 86-day scourge that has been 2020 simply rolls along a little more, claiming another victim. We can mourn his passing, but we should also take time to celebrate his life. Because this was one of the great sports lifetimes we’ve ever known.
Born Fred Neal in Greensboro, N.C., he was a college star at Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, and starting in 1963 he donned No. 22 for the Globetrotters, and kept that on his back for 22 years and over 6,000 games. He may not have been the Globies’ original ball-handling wizard — that was Marques Haynes.
But it was Curly who was doing all of that when TV became such a huge vehicle for spreading the Globetrotters’ story, and their message. He was a natural showman, and he seemed to enjoy every bit of it, right from “Sweet Georgia Brown” to the final buzzer, by which point the Globetrotters would invariably have beaten the Generals. The Globies retired his number when he retired. They can never retire his impact.
I once asked Red Klotz — who owned, played for and coached the Generals for years — who he thought the bigger gate attraction was. “People who aren’t basketball fans loved Meadowlark,” he said. “But for the basketball fans, it was always Curly, all the way. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.”
All these years later, in memory and mind’s eye, and in dozens of videos preserved on YouTube, you still can’t. Click on a few tonight. That’s one good way to punch back at 2020.
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