When he was a child, Curley "Boo" Johnson was given a pair of autographed gym shoes by Harlem Globetrotters great Fred "Curly" Neal.
It mattered little that the sneakers were a few sizes too big.
"I wore about four pairs of socks so I could wear them. And I used to pull my pants up so people could see the 'Curly Neal,'" Johnson said. "I looked like a clown in shoes 312 sizes too big for me, but I was proud of them."
Years later, Johnson really got to see what it was like to be in Curly Neal's shoes. Johnson joined the Globetrotters, followed in the footsteps of great dribblers like Neal and helped carry on the storied basketball team's tradition of tricks and triumphs on the court.
"He reminds me of Curly Neal. He just doesn't have the bald head," Globetrotters coach Preston Thomas said.
Johnson and Clyde "The Glide" Sinclair, who both have spent 12 fulfilling seasons with the world-renowned Globetrotters, have been visiting the Frederick County YMCA with Thomas this week to dish out drills and thrills to kids ages 6-16 at the Denny's Harlem Globetrotters Summer Youth Basketball Camp.
YMCA vice president Wini Schumacher said the campers were wowed Monday watching Johnson and Sinclair do Globetrotter trademarks like twirling the ball on their fingertips. Johnson knows the feeling.
"They're just like me," Johnson said. "I used to be enchanted by the things the Globetrotters would do."
Johnson's connection to the Globetrotters goes way back -- thanks to his father, Curley Johnson Sr. The elder Johnson was a college teammate of former Globetrotter Bobby Joe Mason at Bradley and he played for the Brown Bombers, one of the Globetrotters' opponents. Johnson Jr., who would develop a deep sense of basketball history, got to meet legendary Globetrotters like Neal, George "Meadowlark" Lemon and Hubert "Geese" Ausbie.
"I used to be a ballboy when they would come to my hometown," said Johnson, who grew up in Chicago and later moved to Peoria, Ill. "I used to sit in the locker room and watch them like a hawk. Before the game, they'd play cards and work on ballhandling ..."
Johnson's family even had Globetrotters as houseguests.
"They would come to my house for a home-cooked meal," Johnson said. "When you were offering a home-cooked meal to a Globetrotter, they would be there. Now I know why. You come to miss those things when you're away from home."
Johnson Sr., who dreamed that his son would be a professional player, died during Johnson Jr.'s freshman year of college. But the son fufilled his father's dream, joining the Globetrotters in 1988.
"A couple months after college, I became a Globetrotter," Johnson said. "It's the only job I've ever had. It's who I am."
Harlem players like Johnson and Sinclair are accustomed to being on the road. They have visited 65 countries with the aptly-named Globetrotters.
"I make a living, and it's taken me all over the world," said Johnson, who has shaken hands with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, been blessed by Mother Teresa in India and stood atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Johnson and Sinclair are quick to point out that while the Globetrotters are known for their tricks, they can also play straight basketball. The Globetrotters practice daily, and Thomas estimated they play 160-some games a year.
Aside from regularly beating their exhibition opponent, the New York Nationals, the Globetrotters defeated the NABC College All-Stars at last year's Final Four Weekend and they play exhibition games against college teams.
"A Globetrotter can do a lot of tricks," Johnson said. "But you have to establish yourself as a legitimate basketball player first and an entertainer second."
One of the skilled Globetrotters Johnson mentioned was Johnny Rhodes, a former Maryland player who set the ACC steals record with 344.
"I call him Ali Baba -- he's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves all packed into one," Johnson said.
Newcomers don't have to know fancy basketball tricks.
"You're judged strictly on your basketball, personality and intellect," Sinclair said. "It's the veterans that teach you -- give you the magic of the basketball."
Speaking of magic, Sinclair -- a point guard -- is a member of the Globetrotters Magic Circle.
"Not every Globetrotter can get into the Circle. It's like a rite of passage," said Thomas, who called Sinclair one of the team's true leaders. "He's like a father figure to a lot of the guys. They respect him."
Sinclair, who starred at North Carolina Central, was drafted by the Washington Bullets. Although Sinclair never got to play in the NBA, he has no complaints about his Globetrotters tenure.
"They make millions and millions of dollars (in the NBA), we make millions and millions of people smile," Sinclair said.
Jessica Thompson, a six-year-old attending camp at the Frederick County YMCA, enjoyed Sinclair and Johnson's demonstration Monday.
"It was neat," Thompson said. "They could do all those tricks and stuff."
So which trick did the local campers like best?
"All of them," 14-year-old Clay Dinkel said. "They were fun, cool ... they're awesome."
Thomas said the Globetrotters often leave kids "spellbound," and he knows one of them personally.
"My grandaughter (Alexis Carlos) came up to watch us play in D.C.," Thomas said. "My grandaughter, who is 4, became a basketball fan that day. She saw the Wizards that night and she liked it. Now she's hooked."
Thomas wasn't immune to the Globetrotters magic, either.
"I saw the Globetrotters play in '58 when Wilt Chamberlin was with them," Thomas said. "They came to my hometown in Gary, Ind. I saw Wilt and was amazed. I had never seen anybody so big."
Like Thomas and Johnson, Sinclair appreciates the Globetrotters' rich, 75-year history.
"Growing up, you watched them on TV. But I never thought I'd be on the same floor and wearing the same uniform," Sinclair said. "They're a part of history, and they're still rolling on."