"R.I.P. Curly and Carl"

April 14th, 2020

Jim Longworth playing with Curly Neal and the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1970s Dudley High School and Wake Forest University each lost a good friend recently, and their loss was felt throughout the Triad, and far beyond. Harlem Globetrotter legend Freddie “Curly” Neal passed away on March 26, at the age of 77, and legendary basketball coach Carl Tacy lost his battle with leukemia on April 2. He was 87. Personality-wise, the two men couldn’t have been more different. Curly was a showman on the court. He revolutionized the art of dribbling and always had a smile on his face while he was baffling his clueless opponents. Carl, meanwhile, was quiet and rarely had a smile on his face, even when he was beating Carolina for the millionth time.

Carl Tacy was born in Huttonsville, West Virginia, and played basketball for Elkin and Davis College. The first 10 years of his coaching career was spent on the high school and junior college level, but then he broke into the Division I ranks in a big way, leading Marshall University to a 23-4 record, and an NCAA bid in his first year as head coach. But Tacy is best known for his thirteen seasons at Wake Forest, where he led the Demon Deacons to three NCAA appearances, two NIT bids, four “Big 4” championships, and a 222-149 record.

I first met Carl when he and his wife Donnie were in attendance at a Wake basketball game. I introduced myself and said, “Coach, the thing I’ll always remember about your career at Wake Forest is that you were the only man who could consistently beat Dean Smith’s Four Corners offense. How did you do it?” Tacy answered by relating a story to me. “One time right before a game, this young man came up to me and wanted to know how I always beat Dean’s Four Corners,” Carl said. “Well, what did you tell him,” I asked. “Nothing,” Carl said. “He was from Carolina.” It was the only time I ever saw Tacy smile. Some weeks later, I called him to see if he would appear on my Triad Today show, but he declined the offer. He didn’t want to be in the spotlight. That was Carl Tacy in a nutshell.

Curly Neal was born in Greensboro and was a stand-out on the Dudley High School basketball team. After graduating, he took his considerable talents to Johnson C. Smith, where he averaged 23 points per game. The Harlem Globetrotters came calling soon afterward, and Curly (an ironic nickname for a man with a shaved head) spent the next 22 years entertaining millions of fans throughout the world. He retired from the Trotters in 1985 after having played in over 6,000 games in 97 countries (USA Today). In addition to his induction into the Johnson C. Smith Hall of Fame, Curly was also inducted into the NBA Hall and had his jersey number retired by the Globetrotters.

I met Curly in 1976 when I was working at WFMY-TV. Neal, Meadowlark Lemon, and the gang had come to Greensboro for another of their lop-sided matches against the hapless Washington Generals. Prior to the game, I filmed a NewsReel 2 comedy feature in which Curly let me try-out for the Globetrotters. Needless to say, the audition didn’t go well. My ball handling was so inferior that, at the end of the segment, Curly and his teammates walked away on cue and left me standing alone on the Coliseum floor. It was one of those moments you never forget, and never want to.

Basketball fans will remember Carl Tacy and Curly Neal for their respective contributions to the world of sports. I, on the other hand, will remember the former for flashing a rare grin in my direction, and the latter for keeping me from being the first white Globetrotter.

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