To say that Meadowlark Lemon was just a basketball player would be doing a great man a great disservice. He was the star player for the Harlem Globetrotters – which was more than just a basketball team.
Meadowlark Lemon helped change the face of American history, Black history and American sport. He did so by being one of the great sportsmen of our age, by creating joy, and by making people laugh.
The Globetrotters formed in 1926 and never joined the NBA, instead touring countries across the globe. The exhibition team mixed athleticism and skill on the basketball court with entertainment and comedy and soon became much more than a novelty act.
Lemon plied his trade before and during the height of the Black Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, helping break down race barriers, and in the 1970s when the Harlem Globetrotters enjoyed its heyday. During the Cold War, the team transcended cultural borders, and Lemon was a star in that team. He went on to become known as the Clown Prince of the sport and achieved celebrity in his own right. He spent a quarter of a century with the team, playing before crowds in a hundred-plus countries.
When he died just before the New Year, he left behind a very different USA to the one he was born into 83 years earlier, in North Carolina in 1932. He described his childhood surroundings “as a world of racism and segregation”.
At the age of 11 prospects looked bleak for Meadow, who changed his name by deed poll to Meadowlark in late 1950s. He was a young black boy in the Jim Crow South and his parents had split-up. But his life changed when he walked into a cinema hall in 1943 and caught his first glimpse of the legendary Globetrotters.
He later wrote: “The newsreel on this particular Saturday was about a new kind of team — a basketball team known as the Harlem Globetrotters.
“The players in the newsreel were unlike any I had ever seen … They laughed, danced, and did ball tricks as they stood in a ‘Magic Circle’ and passed the ball to a jazzy tune called ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ How they could play!” He added: “There was one other thing that was different about them, though. They were all black men. The same colour as me.”
“When they got to the basketball court, they seemed to make that ball talk,” Lemon said during his Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech in 2003. “I said, ‘That’s mine. This is for me.’ I was a receiving a vision. I was receiving a dream in my heart.”
It was there and then he decided he would be part of that team. According to his website he made his first hoop out of an onion sack and coat hanger, and used a tin of Carnation milk for his first two-point shot.
Lemon dedicated himself to achieving his dream. He would practice on the court up to 12 hours a day and would abstain from alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.
He played college basketball and following a two-year drafting in the Army applied to join the Globetrotters in 1954, making his debut a year later.
He would go on to play consistently for the side for the next 24 seasons, playing more than 300 games to two million paying punters each year.
He became a central figure in the Globetrotters’ pre-game “Magic Circle” routine, and was a man of immense skill, famed as much for his half-court hook shots as his on-court slapstick comedy.
He would toss a bucket full of what turned out to be confetti over the audience, and sneak a ball attached to a large rubber band into games and throw a pass that would unexpectedly come snapping back into his face, causing startled crowds to laugh in delight. He would keep up an animated dialogue with other players, teammates and spectators during games, and it didn’t seem to matter what corner of the world the Globetrotters were visiting. Crowds, especially kids, were charmed.
He told an interviewer in 2004: “I’m an athlete, but athletes are entertainers and entertainers can be comedians.”
But his determination to entertain did not detract from his skill. “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, Lemon’s one-time teammate, said in a television interview shortly before his death in 1999, as the New York Times reported. “People would say it would be Dr. J (Julius Erving) or even (Michael) Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
Lemon acknowledged playing the clown wasn’t enough to be a Harlem Globetrotter: “The comedians were the ones who got cut first,” he said in 1977. “You first had to prove that you could play basketball, then you had to show that you could be funny.”
Of course, there were detractors, with some accusing the team, and Lemon in particular, of playing the Uncle Tom card with their buffoonery. But it was an accusation denied by many, including civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson. He said: “I think they’ve been a positive influence… They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior.”
“He changed people’s attitudes about race, he changed foreigners’ attitudes about America, and along the way, he made millions love the game of basketball,” said Mannie Jackson, a teammate of Lemon’s and former CEO of the Globetrotters.
I have been calleed an Ambassador of Good Will in Short Pants to the world, which is an honour
Lemon himself was aware of the impact the Globetrotters made: “I knew when I joined the team that they were one of the most important institutions in the world,” he wrote. “They had done more for the perception of black people and for the perception of America than almost anything you could think of.”
In 1979 Lemon left the Globetrotters to form his own comedy basketball teams and to try his hand at acting.
A life touring played havoc with his family life. The father of 10 rarely saw his children and he split from his first wife after she stabbed him with a knife. “I have a lot of people I need to apologise to,” Lemon said when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, saying sorry to his family for the Globetrotters’ punishing tour schedule.
He was ordained as a Christian minister in 1986 – an honour he said surpassed being a Harlem Globetrotter – and went on to found Meadowlark Lemon Ministries. “I have been called the Clown Prince of Basketball, and an Ambassador of Good Will in Short Pants to the world, which is an honour,” he wrote. “To be a child of God is the highest honour anyone could have.”
A message on his website posted after his death was announced on December 27 reads: “The life, love, and laughter of Meadowlark Lemon served to inspire an entire generation around the world. His relentless pursuit to bring happiness to the masses will live on…”
It’s hard to argue otherwise.