Monday, December 28, 2015

The Late Great Meadowlark Lemon

Meadlowlark Lemon, possibly the most well-known of the Harlem Globetrotters, died yesterday, December 27 2015, at the age of 83.

Meadowlark Lemon was born George Meadow Lemon III on April 25 1932 in  Lexington County, North Carolina. It was in 1938 that his family moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. Mr. Lemon learned to play basketball at a local boys club. Unable to afford an actual basketball hoop and ball, as a boy he made his own hoop from an onion sack and used a Carnation milk can for a ball. He attended Williston Industrial School and then Florida A&M University before he was drafted into the United States Army. He served for two years in the military and was stationed in Austria. When the Globetrotters toured Europe he played a few games with them. He impressed them enough to get a try out after he was demobilised. He was assigned to the Kansas City Stars, the Globetrotters' developmental team, before officially joining the Globetrotters in 1954.

With the Harlem Globetrotters Meadowlark Lemon filled the role played earlier by Goose Tatum, who combined comedy antics with basketball. Mr. Tatum left the team about the time that Meadowlark Lemon joined the Globetrotters. It was not long before Meadowlark Lemon assumed Goose Tatum's title as the "Clown Prince of Basketball". He was known for such routines (or "reams" as the team calls them) as imitating a baseball batter and mimicking a baseball game with the other players; doing funny walks; dribbling above his head; and threatening both audiences and referees with buckets of confetti (and sometimes water). Meadowlark Lemon was not simply a clown, however, but he was also a skilled athlete. He was well known for his hook shots from half-court, as well as his incredible passing ability. Like all of the Globetrotters he was skilled in basketball legerdemain, doing tricks with the ball that even some NBA players would find challenging.

Arguably Meadowlark Lemon was with the Harlem Globetrotters at the height of their fame in the Sixties and Seventies. Not surprisingly he and the team appeared frequently on television. He appeared as a mystery guest on the panel show What's My Line in 1956. He appeared on the 1970 Saturday morning cartoon Harlem Globe Trotters. With the rest of the team he was a regular on the variety show The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine.

After 22 years with the Globetrotters Meadowlark Lemon was dismissed from the team in 1978 due to a salary dispute. He starred in the geography educational film Meadowlark Lemon Presents the World in 1979 and that same year joined the cast of the sitcom Hello, Larry, on which he played himself. He also guest starred on Diff'rent Strokes, The Hollywood Squares, The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Here's Boomer, and Alice. He played Rev. Grady Jackson in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979).

In 1980 Meadowlark Lemon formed his own touring basketball team, the Bucketeers. He later played with the Shooting Stars and Meadowlark Lemon's Harlem All Stars. In 1994 he rejoined the Harlem Globetrotters and played several games with them. In 1986 Meadowlark Lemon became an ordained minister. 

The Harlem Globetrotters occupy a unique place in popular culture. They are a basketball team beloved by many who would never dream of watching an NBA game. They are as much superb entertainers as they are superb athletes. This was truer of none more so than Meadowlark Lemon. Charismatic and gifted with impeccable comic timing, Meadowlark Lemon was always guaranteed to put on a good show. Indeed, so great was he at keeping crowds enthralled that it seems likely that had he not become a basketball player he might have become a comedian.

That is not to say that Meadowlark Lemon was not a great athlete. He may have been the Clown Prince of Baketball, but he could play better than most professional players. His half-court hook shots were incredible, and would be difficult for even the best players. His passing ability was unmatched by all but the very best. In 1999 when Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the Globetrotters and Mr. Lemon before joining the NBA, was asked who the greatest basketball player of all time was, he replied, "For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon." Ultimately Meadowlark Lemon did what few sports figures ever have. He transcended the popularity of his sport to become a universally beloved entertainer.

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