Curly Neal, the Harlem Globetrotters star known for his basketball-spinning and dribbling skills—as well as his ever-present smile—died Thursday at his home near Houston at 77. The team announced the death on Twitter of the "icon known worldwide for his trademark shaved head and charismatic smile." It did not specify a cause of death. Neal was the team's slick ballhandler, playing more than 6,000 games for the Globetrotters, TMZ reports. "His basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide," said the team's general manager. NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas tweeted a tribute to Neal and another longtime Globetrotter: "Curly Neal and Marcus Haynes taught me how to dribble." One writer said, "If you grew up in the '70s or '80s and you loved this game ... you dreamed of dribbling a basketball like Curly Neal."
Fred Neal led Johnson C. Smith University to the CIAA title, averaging 23 points per game as a senior, before joining the Globetrotters in 1963. When he stopped playing after 22 years in 1985, his jersey was retired by the team, joining only Wilt Chamberlain, Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon, and Goose Tatum, per ESPN. He also appeared in the Globetrotters' TV specials and Scooby-Doo. "Being a Globetrotter, especially during that time, was as much a responsibility as it was a job," Neal wrote in 2016, per USA Today. "We weren’t just entertainers. I truly believe that we helped ease many of the tensions that pulled at the country. It didn't matter if you were black, white or whatever—laughing and enjoying our games made those barriers disappear." (Read more obituary stories.)