Growing up as a youngster, I always looked forward to whenever the Harlem Globetrotters would appear on ABC's Wide World of Sports -- boy, am I dating myself!
However, the longtime basketball team fell on hard times. The Globetrotters became irrelevant to many, who saw the players as nothing more than hoopin' clowns.
The basketball was overshadowed by the antics, says Fred "Curly" Neal, a key member of the Globetrotters for 22 seasons, appearing in over 6,000 games in 97 countries from 1963 to 1985.
A 23-point scorer at Johnson C. Smith (North Carolina) University, he was asked to assume the key ball handing duties, a role made famous by Marques Haynes. "One of the dribblers got hurt during the time we were getting ready to go overseas," he recalls. "I scarred up my kneecaps three or four times but I kept working on it, and I got better and better. I didn't want to be the same as Marques, so I got me a new routine."
He did -- Neal became legendary for his magical shooting and dribbling skills, along with his on-court antics that wowed the crowd.
"We always believed in our basketball, and comedy came second," Neal points out.
When Mannie Jackson took over ownership of the team several years ago, he put the Globetrotters on a new course of action. Jackson dusted off its seemingly tarnished image and restored its greatness.
The Globetrotters are better than ever.
"When I first joined the team, one of the first things I did was learn about the history of the organization," says Eugene "Wildkat" Edgerson, a five-year member. "The average person will say (that) the Harlem Globetrotters are from Harlem, New York, which is not the case. It started in 1926 in Chicago, Illinois, and played its first game in Harlem. That little tidbit really opens up your eyes."
The only player to appear in two Final Fours (1997 and 2001) for the University of Arizona, Edgerson, who holds both a bachelor and master's degrees in education, is called the team's gentle giant. The 6-foot-7 player is a favorite among both teammates and fans with his retro Afro style, work ethic, personality and energy.
"I am proud to be with something so positive," continues Edgerson.
The Globetrotters' current "Magic As Ever" world tour stops in Minneapolis for three shows this weekend. Minnesota Viking Pro Bowl defensive tackle Pat Williams will don the Globetrotters' red, white and blue colors and join the team during its widely popular football portion of the show. Williams also donated 100 tickets to Friday night's show at Target Center to the African American Adoption Agency, Minnesota's first full-service, non-profit adoption agency designed to move children of color from foster care to permanent families.
Also, Paul Allen, who does play-by-play on Viking radio broadcasts, will suit up and play for the Washington Generals, hoping to help the Globetrotters' main opponent snap their 37-plus year losing streak.
Neal, who now travels as the Globetrotters' "Ambassador of Goodwill," also will be there. "I hope to be around for a few more years," he proclaims.
(I wrote a feature on both Neal and Edgerson for this week's edition of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. Check it out at www.spokesman-recorder.com)