Tragic day for the basketball community ... beloved Harlem Globetrotters legend Fred "Curly" Neal has passed away. He was 77 years old.

Curly became one of the most recognizable players for the Globies during his 22-year stint with the team ... playing in more than 6,000 games.

Neal's #22 jersey was retired in 2008 ... one of just 5 players to receive the honor.

Curly was also featured in several of the Globetrotters' TV specials ... including "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island" and "The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Special" ... as well as 'Scooby-Doo.'

Curly was the team's elite ball handler for the Globetrotters after a successful career at Johnson C. Smith University ... where he averaged 23 points a game.

Fellow Globetrotters legend Curley "Boo" Johnson mourned the loss of his friend on Twitter, saying "Last night the World lost a true ambassador of the game of basketball and outside of Muhammad Ali one of the most recognizable faces on the Planet!"

"Rest In Peace my Brother.... "