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Welcome this week to the front porch.

A couple of weeks ago, Harlem Globetrotter legend Fred ‘Curly’ Neal died at the age of 77. He and Meadowlark Lemon undoubtedly were the most iconic Globetrotters ever. Every fan will remember Curly because of his wide smile, tremendous humor, and astute ball-handling skills.

Curly just flat knew how to handle the basketball. Not many could do it better. What he did transcended changes in today’s game. The skill of ball-handling is still as essential in today’s game as it was then. Curly’s skill and personality reached every age, every race, every creed, and every nationality. 

I suppose it is ironic that in such turbulent times we lose a figure whose life’s work and skill tore down all the walls we seem to be very good at building these days.

I thought of something else about Curly, as I pondered his passing. Curly Neal not only knew how to handle a basketball – from everything I knew about him, he knew how to handle himself. Knowing how to handle yourself, I would say, is as rare a quality as handling the ball. Ay, he could hit a 40-foot shot that would almost hit the rafters, display to the crowd a grin as wide as Texas, then strut back to the other end of the court in a make-believe pompous fashion – but it wasn’t pompous, it was truly funny.

Even as a kid, I loved the way Curly handled himself, and he reminds me how great of a quality that really is. As I think of him now, I think of so many others I’ve encountered who knew how to handle themselves similarly.

I cannot help but think of the time my grandad was getting ready to debate a powerful speaker half a century or so ago. Two old Oklahoma friends sitting up on the front row looked at one another, and one said, “Preacher Miller has his work cut out for him today” – that is, until the Georgia preacher stood up for his rebuttal of the smooth orator’s first speech. Preacher Miller wasn’t five minutes into his Bible-quoting speech when one of the old friends looked at the other, and said, “I think Preacher Miller can handle himself.” Oklahoma’s Raymond Lindsey told me that story years ago, and I never forgot it. I add my grandad to that list of those who knew how to handle himself.

Others from my old red-clay stomping ground join Preacher Miller in this area, too.

In 1973, I had the opportunity to work with a hometown icon named Brian Light. I say ‘icon’ because that’s what he was to me. Hundreds in LaGrange, Georgia knew Brian because he laid brick on what seemed like half the houses in town from the ‘70s for at least thirty years. Owen Wister, in the classic novel “The Virginian,” wrote that some people can carry themselves like a true gentleman without having the pedigree. That’s Brian Light. Few millionaires or people of aristocracy could carry themselves with the confidence and gentleness of Brian. I’ve always wanted to emulate that, just haven’t found myself to be very successful at it.

My friend and Coca-Cola Mike’s brother, Larry Thompson, also inherited that rare gene, just as with Brian and Preacher Miller. Many in town know Larry because he worked for years at Art’s Cleaners (in the old day everybody used the cleaners, it seemed); and now he has found a niche working at Higgins Funeral Home, a fact not surprising because of his gentle way of carrying himself. Back when Coca-Cola and I were boys, Larry looked to be six-foot-five, although he isn’t quite that. But he carried himself that way. It didn’t hurt, either, that Larry has that smooth bass voice, a gift he has used well all his life on gospel albums, singing for funerals, and, of course, three times a week at church. I guess you’d call it the ‘it’ factor. Deep-down singing Larry had it – and still does, I’d say.

I’m going to add to our list one of my classmates Steve Sauter, one of the ‘boys’ down at the Y, as I’ve called them for years. Steve always had that ‘smooth’ way of carrying himself, even on the basketball court. He is a pretty good basketball player, and it doesn’t hurt that he stands six-feet-two. But I think his way of carrying himself made him look better than he actually was, although I will say that he still has a nice ten-foot bank shot. And Steve’s the only person I know whom I would let get by with hollering, “Want some cheese with that whine?” when I was having one of my very, very rare bad days on the court over at the Y (well, maybe not that all that rare). You have to be a smooth customer to get by with something like that.

The list of people we know who just had that rare quality of handling themselves can go on and on. I am glad to pay a little tribute to these few – my Grandad, Brian, Larry, Steve, and, of course, the legendary Curly Neal.

We’ll miss Curly Neal and his adept ball-handling skills. But every time I see film of him on the court from now on, I think I’m going to walk a little taller, talk a little smoother, and throw on a smile a mile wide. Shoot, I might even strut a little. I’ll need to be careful, though, because few people can handle themselves the way Curly Neal did.

Coach Steven Bowen, a long-time Red Oak teacher and coach, now enjoys his time as a full-time writer and preacher of the gospel. In addition to his evangelistic travels, he works and writes for the Church of Christ of Red Oak at Uhl Road and Ovilla. Their worship times are 10 a.m. Sundays and 7:30 pm. Wednesdays. Email or call or text 972-824-5197.

Ellis County Press

208 S Central St. 
Ferris, TX 75125