WASHINGTON: Meadowlark Lemon, the lithe showman, jester and trick-shot genius who entertained audiences worldwide as the heart and soul of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, has died at age 83, the team announced on Monday (Tuesday in Manila).
Lemon, who played 24 years with the Globetrotters during the height of their fame, was a master of razzle-dazzle and good-natured crowd-pleasing hijinks. His legendary hook shots from half court and no-look behind-the-back passes became marquee features of the traveling sports show.
He died Sunday in Scottsdale, Arizona, the team said.
Nicknamed the “clown prince of basketball,” Lemon was renowned for his comedy routines, including showering referees and fans with water buckets full of confetti.
But the squad in red, white and blue uniforms had also been a thriving professional team, once winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament before the rise of the National Basketball Association.
Lemon never played in the NBA. But his skills and showmanship were such that he eclipsed the popularity of a star recruit straight out of college — Wilt Chamberlain — when the latter joined the Globetrotters for a season before entering the NBA.
“He was an incredible entertainer and brought happiness and lifelong memories to millions around the world. We have lost a great ambassador of the game,” Globetrotters chief executive Kurt Schneider said in a statement.
Lemon grew up poor in North Carolina, and joined the team in 1954. He retired from the Trotters in 1979, and then launched a series of his own comedic basketball teams that travelled the country.
He played an astonishing 16,000 games overall in his career, according to his website, including some 7,500 consecutive Globetrotter games.
“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” Chamberlain reportedly told a television interviewer not long before his death in 1999.
The constant on-court buffoonery — and the belief that the Globetrotters, historically an African-American team, were conducting a sort of minstrel revival — brought criticism during the civil rights era, when some saw the team’s antics as demeaning.
Others pointed to the Trotters’ diplomatic and cultural impact abroad. The team played several games in Moscow during the Cold War and met with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. They performed in front of the pope in Rome, before kings and queens, and for millions of fans in more than 100 countries.
For years on those trips, Lemon was the ringmaster, having taken over the role from Reece “Goose” Tatum. In his prime, Lemon was ranked among the most recognizable athletes in the world.
His fame transcended sports, and he and other Globetrotters were featured on television shows, commercials, and a children’s cartoon.
In his later years, Lemon served as a minister and motivational speaker.
Many of the details of Lemon’s early life remain hazy. His website says his given name was Meadow Lemon III, and a frequently cited date of birth is April 25, 1932.
He grew up in an era when segregation in sports was the norm, and yet he played for a team, founded in 1926, that helped ultimately bring about the integration of the NBA.
“Man, I’ve had a good run,” Lemon said during his induction into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
In that speech, he noted how he first learned of the Globetrotters when he was 11 and watched a news reel in a theater in North Carolina.
“When they got to the basketball court, they seemed to make that ball talk,” Lemon said.
“I said, ‘That’s mine, this is for me.’ I was receiving a vision, I was receiving a dream in my heart.”
Tributes from fellow basketball stars poured in.
“Rest In Basketball Heaven Sir!” former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal wrote on Twitter.