Curly Neal was a Harlem Globetrotter when that really meant something - in the days when he and Meadowlark Lemon and their teammates were all over the television dial, making moves on the basketball court that seemed just short of superhuman while, simultaneously, living up to their reputation as the Clown Princes of Basketball. Nobody played the game better, or with more enthusiasm. Even people who didn't know a jump shot from an airball knew the Globetrotters, and loved watching them play.
"We set the bar kind of high, Meadowlark and I and the rest of the guys," says Neal, who used to dribble a basketball as if it were some sort of adrenalized extension of his hand, as if he had some kind of computer chip in there controlling each bounce. Crowds, whether watching live or on TV, loved it.
That was back in the 1970s, however, and the years since haven't been kind to the Globetrotters. They're still playing exciting basketball, beating all comers, delighting the audiences that come to see them, still living up to that nickname. But for years, since legendary players like Neal and Lemon left or retired, the team has been flying under a lot of people's radars. The team's TV presence was almost nil, and even their name recognition was dropping steadily. After 84 years, it seemed that the bloom was finally coming off the rose.
But the current Globetrotters, the incarnation that will be playing 1st Mariner Arena on Saturday night, are determined to get those glory days back. The basketball they're playing is as good as ever, the players insist, probably better. The trick is getting the team back in the public eye.
"There are some big shoes we have to fill, but we're putting our own unique style on it," says Moo Moo Evans, a five-year team veteran who specializes in the sort of astonishing dunks that come easily to a guy with a 42-inch vertical leap. "We're going to leave a mark, me and my teammates; we're going to leave our own mark on the Globetrotters. When people know us, they're going to know that the Globetrotters had some great years while we were playing."
The team has taken some major steps toward raising its public profile. Globetrotters Nathaniel "Big Easy" Lofton and Herbert "Flight Time" Lang were contestants in the just-concluded season of CBS's "The Amazing Race," finishing in fourth place. Five Globetrotters appeared on a May episode of ABC's "The Bachelorette," playing a pickup game against some unsuspecting would-be suitors.
The team has some fantastic players - especially dribbler Scooter Christensen, ball handlers Handles Franklin and Ant Atkinson, and showman supreme Special K Daley, who got to play one-on-one against Michael Jordan in a Gatorade commercial - who call to mind some of the great Globetrotters of the past. Deals are in the works, according to team management, to get the Globetrotters back on TV, possibly as a Saturday-morning kids' cartoon.
In a March 2009 article, Sports Illustrated referred to the Globetrotters as "the sports equivalent of comfort food."
Neal, who at 67 still serves as a roving ambassador for the Globetrotters, believes the current team is ready to recapture those lost glories. They're as good as their predecessors ever were, and the magic is still there.
"No, they haven't lost anything," Neal says. "They've just got to get the guys back on the same field as we were, on TV, cartoons, all that. I hope and pray that it gets back to what it was like in the '60s and the '70s."
Those were some glorious days. The Globetrotters always seemed to be popping up on TV specials, going up against a squad of specially picked foils - the basketball equivalent of straight men - who would stand by helplessly as the Globetrotters would dribble, shoot and showboat their way up and down the court, seemingly oblivious to the laws of physics and basketball. They would hide the ball under their uniforms, attach a string to it, bounce it off the heads of their defenders (usually straight into the basket). While Lemon would stand in one place, hilariously goading his opponent and playing up to the crowd, Neal and his teammates would sink basket after basket, pretty much at will.
"Knocking them in from half court, using the hook shot, bouncing it off the floor and into the basket - any kind of shot you could name, we were doing it," says Neal. "We would practice every day. And we played so many games a year - no matter what you do, you're going to get better, playing every day."
In his 22 seasons with the Globetrotters, until retiring in 1986, Neal played in more than 7,000 games in 97 countries. It sounds like he's exaggerating when he says he won 6,999 of them, but he isn't. In the 83 years since the team was founded in Chicago by Abe Saperstein (who thought "Harlem" suggested entertainment, more so, apparently, than "Chicago"), the team has won more than 23,000 games, while losing fewer than 350. That's a winning percentage of better than 98 percent. Of course, people don't come to Globetrotters games to see the team lose, and their perennial opponents, the calculatedly hapless Washington Generals, last beat them in 1971.
So sure, there's a lot of show involved, and maybe not a lot of real competition. But these guys play genuine basketball, and more than a few of their victories have come against honest-to-goodness college and pro teams. Evans, 27, played for Troy University in Alabama, and was on the squad that earned the Trojans their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, in 2003. Other current Globetrotters have played for such colleges and universities as Baylor, Arizona State, the University of North Carolina and the University of Wyoming. Forward Sarge Johnson played for Allegany College of Maryland.
Neal says he was drafted by four NBA teams, including the New York Knicks and old Baltimore Bullets, after finishing his collegiate career at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. He became a Globetrotter in 1963, he says, after Saperstein wrote him a nice letter and offered plane fare to the team's training camp.
More than 7,000 games and 22 years later, Neal retired. No one in the NBA had played longer. Or, even in an era of multimillion-dollar contracts, had more fun.
"I look at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," he says, invoking the name of the greatest scorer in NBA history. "He played 20 years and almost 1,500 games. I played 22 years and 7,000. Sure, there were times I wish I had played for the NBA, but look at it now. Me, I just enjoy being a Harlem Globetrotter."
If you go
The Harlem Globetrotters will play two games at the 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., on Saturday. Game times are 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $20-$115. Information: 410-347-2020, baltimorearena.com or harlemglobetrotters.com