BY CARL RIVERA
LOS ANGELES TIMES (TNS)
Long before athletes tweeted, and in-your-face dunks and tackles could be shared by millions instantly, Meadowlark Lemon became one of the most popular sports personalities in the world.
His dazzling basketball skills and slapstick humor were a key attraction for perhaps the most famous basketball team ever, the Harlem Globetrotters. He became known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball,” appearing before presidents and kings and portraying himself in television programs, movies and cartoons.
Lemon “just had a great joy,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Monday.
He died Dec. 27 in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the age of 83. The cause of death was not known, said Brett Meister, a spokesman for the Globetrotters.
Meister said Lemon had been scheduled to fly from his Scottsdale home to Chicago to take part in taping an ESPN special as part of the Globetrotters’ 90th anniversary tour.
Broke down cultural and racial barriers
Lemon spent 24 years with the Globetrotters, joining the team in 1954 and acting as ringleader and showman-in-chief during the team’s heyday through the 1960s and 1970s.
Lemon and the Trotters toured more than 100 countries, introducing the sport to millions who had never before seen a basketball thrown through a hoop and breaking down cultural and racial barriers along the way.
During Lemon’s early days, the all-Black Globetrotters’ influence was no less in the United States.
The team showcased the talents of African-American players such as Reece “Goose” Tatum and dribbling wizard Marques Haynes at a time when the fledgling National Basketball Association was largely White and lacked the razzle-dazzle of America’s first show-time team.
The Globetrotters played exhibition ball, mixing theater and sports. But they were also seriously competitive, especially in the early years. Their victory in 1948 over the Minneapolis Lakers helped put the NBA on the map.
A jaw-dropping, half-court hook shot
Lemon was an entertainer, smack-talking through games, chasing referees with water buckets and teasing spectators with similar buckets of confetti. The teams’ usual foils were the mostly White — and hapless — Washington Generals.
But Lemon backed the comedy up with jaw-dropping, half-court hook shots and no-look behind-the-back passes.
“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” Chamberlain said during an interview with The Associated Press before his death in 1999. “People would say it would be Dr. J (Julius Erving) or even Michael Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
Changed name in the 1950s
Meadowlark Lemon was born on April 25, 1932, in Wilmington, N.C. His given name was Meadow Lemon III, according to his website, but he legally changed his name to Meadowlark in the 1950s.
At the time, he wrote that his family was so poor that he practiced by rigging a makeshift hoop with an onion sack and coat hanger. He used an empty Carnation milk can as a ball. After a boy’s club opened nearby, he finally got to handle a real basketball, practicing his shots for as many as 18 hours a day, he wrote.
He played his first season with one of the Globetrotters’ developmental teams, the Kansas City Stars, before joining the Globetrotters in 1954.
Lemon appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and in the animated “Harlem Globetrotters” and “Scooby Doo” cartoon series.
He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 as well as the International Clown Hall of Fame. An ordained minister, he worked as a motivational speaker until his death.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.