Harlem Globetrotter ace still enjoying role after 20 years

You've been working the same job for two decades, you're married with five kids, it's three o'clock in the morning, and you're on a bus that's rolling pell-mell through the Pennsylvania countryside. But it could just as easily be the outskirts of Shelby, Montana or Broken Bow, Oklahoma.

What's more, you'll be doing this tomorrow night and the night after that and the night. . .well, you get the idea. When you're occasionally booked into a big city for a weekend, there is the luxury of a first-class hotel. Otherwise sleep is something you catch between bounces on a bus seat that adjusts backwards, but never quite far enough.

''I've been playing basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters for 20 years and I hope to play with them for another 20 years,'' grins 40-year-old Fred (Curly) Neal, whose shaved head is so highly polished that it is recognized worldwide. ''If you like what you're doing, which with the 'Trotters is making crowds of people happy, then the hardships of traveling are seldom a problem.

''What's a lot more difficult is adjusting to the individual personalities of the people who are constantly around you - like, you really live close for nine months of the year,'' Curly continued. ''Even though the first thing the 'Trotters look for when they're screening for replacements are the best athletes available, rather than the best entertainers, if a guy can't see us as family he isn't going to make it.''

Apparently if the Globies weren't so tall, they'd be natural candidates for the cramped quarters of submarine duty.

Neal, a 6-foot, 175-pound guard, joined the Harlem Globetrotters in 1963 right out of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N. C.

''I knew the 'Trotters had scouted me; I knew they wanted me; and I could see myself fitting in,'' Neal explained. ''But I also knew that I didn't have to go with them. The chance was there for me to try out with three National Basketball Association teams - the New York Knicks, the Detroit Pistons, and the old Baltimore Bullets.

''Yeah, I'm sure I could have played in the NBA,'' Curly added anticipating the next question. ''I had all the tools, and there weren't many guys around then who could dribble like me. But the pros didn't pay then the way they do now , and the 'Trotters were offering more money. For me, deciding between the NBA and the Globies was not what you'd call a tough decision.''

Although Neal can't tell you precisely how many miles he's traveled or how many countries he's visited in the uniform whose design is so busy that it's almost electric, he knows the mileage is around six million and the countries maybe 50.

The figure Curly has no trouble remembering is the number of games he's played with the 'Trotters. The night I talked with him, he was getting ready for No. 6,201, including one on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. However, Curly joined the Globies about seven years too late to perform in the drained bottom of a swimming pool, with baskets posted at either end, while spectators peered over the edge.

With one unit operating in the United States and Canada and another overseas, the Globetrotters normally play between 400 and 500 games a year. Generally, while a tour is in progress, it's seven games in seven nights in seven different places. That is, except during stopovers in major cities, where Saturday and Sunday matinees increase the figure to nine. Rookies start at between $30,000 and $35,000 a year.

Basically the 'Trotters main routines haven't changed much over the years, although they now make a deliberate attempt to get the audience involved by inviting spectators (particularly kids) out on the court to take part in some gag. Of course while this is being done the game simply stops.

As a legitimate basketball team, it is difficult for anyone who knows that the 'Trotters carry their own opposition to take them seriously. Whether their opponents' uniforms say Washington Generals, Boston Shamrocks or whatever, the people in them are exactly the same.

While their opponents are not supposed to try to lose, there would be no show for the customers if they didn't back off about 20 times a game while the 'Trotters set up for some outrageously funny basket. In fact, the Globies haven't lost a game since Jan. 5, 1971, in Martin, Texas. Their current winning streak is now approaching 5,000.

However, there seems to be a feeling inside the organization that it is important to convince people that the Globetrotters can still beat any top college or professional team in the country, or at least not be embarrassed by them.

Neal, for example, claims that the Globies need not hide from any NBA team, including Philadelphia, Boston, or Los Angeles. And while this was true in the 1950s, when the 'Trotters used to hold their own while barnstorming against the College All-Stars and even the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers, one thing has changed dramatically: today's best black players go to the pros, not the Globies , economics having a lot to do with that decision.

Sorry about that, Curly - but it's still a great show!

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