When Meadow George Lemon walked into the Ritz Theater in Wilmington, N.C., at age 11, he didn’t have much going for him. He was born a second-class citizen in the Jim Crow South. His folks had split up, leaving his aunt and uncle to raise him — a skinny boy with a funny name “not at the top of anyone’s priority list,” as he later wrote. And, for a kid who looked forward to splurging 25 cents on westerns and adventure flicks, there was no clear way out.
Then, in the early 1940s, Lemon saw the newsreel that changed his life.
“The newsreel on this particular Saturday was about a new kind of team — a basketball team known as the Harlem Globetrotters,” he later wrote. “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 color as me.”
The man the world would come to know as Meadowlark Lemon — who died Sunday at 83, as the New York Times first reported — dreamed what seemed like an impossible dream: to play for the Globetrotters and conquer the globe. Yet, it came true.
“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, Lemon’s onetime teammate, said in a television interview shortly before his death in 1999, as the Times reported. “People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
Lemon began with virtually nothing: a basketball hoop fashioned out of an onion sack and a wire coat hanger nailed to a tree behind a neighbor’s house. His ball was an empty Carnation evaporated milk can salvaged from the garbage.
Eventually, these modest efforts let to greater things. Lemon was pulled out of a pickup game by a coach who saw his talent. The coach taught him the fundamentals — including the hook shot that would make Lemon famous.
Lemon, however, was loath to give his mentor all the credit, saying he continued to work on the shot every day even after he perfected it.
“I learned to perfect the hook shot because I was taught by the very best coach I’ve ever known,” he wrote in a 2010 memoir. “… It was me.”
An all-state high school player, Lemon landed back in Wilmington after an unsuccessful stint playing at Florida A&M. He was considering joining the army in the middle of the Korean War when a high-school coach got him his dream shot: a tryout with the Globetrotters in Raleigh. In front of 15,000 people, Lemon played for a quarter-and-a-half and scored 12 points.
Though the Globetrotters were impressed, the team wasn’t ready for him. So Lemon enlisted and, while serving in Austria, tried out again when the Globetrotters visited Europe. The result: a 40-game contract for a European tour that turned into a career as the “Clown Prince of Basketball” of the franchise that spanned two decades.
First lesson: Even on a team that valued spectacle over statistics, comedy isn’t enough.
“The comedians were the ones who got cut first,” Lemon said in 1977. “You first had to prove that you could play basketball, then you had to show that you could be funny.”
Indeed, in the middle of the 20th century, the Globetrotters were more than a novelty act. When Lemon joined in 1954, the NBA had integrated just six years before. Owned by the very white, very Jewish Abe Saperstein — who embraced the novel idea, missed by many of his contemporaries, that some black people could actually play basketball — the team was a showcase for African American players, including Chamberlain, who played for a year with Lemon. Though sometimes criticized for its buffoonish image — for “Tomming for Abe,” as detractors put it — in the civil rights era, the Globetrotters always had many defenders.
“I think they’ve been a positive influence,” Jesse Jackson once said. “… They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior.”
“I knew when I joined the team that they were one of the most important institutions in the world,” Lemon wrote. “They had done more for the perception of black people and for the perception of America that almost anything you could think of.” He added: “Some people say that the Globetrotters kept the NBA in business in its early years.”
Amid the race politics, there was room for levity — a lot of it. In vaudevillian gags known as “reems,” the Globetrotters would torture referees, fake injuries, line up in football or baseball formations, or douse one another with water. Lemon became the ringmaster of this circus, playing up to 10 games per week before 2 million paying customers around the world per year. With the Globetrotters and a subsequent comedy basketball teams he formed, he played in an East German swimming pool and a Mexican bullfighting ring. He played before two popes and met President Reagan.
There was a cost. Lemon, the father of 10 children, missed a lot at home, where life was not always placid. Indeed, Lemon divorced his first wife, who was arrested in 1978 after a car chase between the unhappy couple ended with her stabbing him at 53rd Street and Second Avenue in New York.
“I have a lot of people I need to apologize 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.
As proud as Lemon was of his performance on the court, he was perhaps prouder of his performance in another arena: He was ordained as a minister in 1986, according to his website.
“I have been called the Clown Prince of Basketball, and an Ambassador of Good Will in Short Pants to the world, which is an honor,” he wrote. “To be a child of God is the highest honor anyone could have.”
In the end, he laid credit for all he had accomplished on the court and off at the feet of the almighty.
“God planted that dream in my heart as I sat right there in the Ritz Theater,” Lemon wrote. “He gave me a relentless desire, determination, energy, and the talent to make my dream come true.”