News & Politics

Meadowlark Lemon, the 'Clown Prince of Basketball,' Dead at 83

FILE - In this May 17, 1959, file photo, Meadowlark Lemon, of the Harlem Globetrotters, shows off his large hands on arrival in London where the team was to perform at the Empire Pool in Wembley for a week. Lemon, known as the Globetrotters' "clown prince" of basketball, died Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 83. (AP Photo/File)

George “Meadowlark” Lemon, a fixture with the Harlem Globetrotters for more than a quarter century, has passed away according to a Globetrotters spokesman.

He was known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball” — a moniker he earned by employing a mixture of humor, slapstick, and eye-popping basketball skills.

For in the end, Lemon will be remembered as one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived. He enjoyed the singular distinction of being elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2003 and the International Clown Hall of Fame in 2009.

Along with such legends as the totally bald “Curly” Neal, Reece “Goose” Tatum, and Hubert “Geese” Ausbie, Lemon and the Globetrotters became basketball’s international ambassadors of goodwill, playing a brutal tour schedule that had them giving exhibitions 10 times a week. In their heyday, the Trotters attracted more than 2 million paying customers in dozens of countries every year.

But it was Lemon who became the ringmaster, stand-up comic, and basketball wizard of the Globetrotters. As the team went into its patented, figure 8 weave, one by one they would toss the ball into Lemon in the post. The Hall of Famer kept up a running commentary — a stream of consciousness diatribe that dissed opponents, the refs, even some of the fans. He would pull down the pants of “unsuspecting” referees, toss water pails full of confetti into the crowd, and make spectacular hook shots from half court.

The early days of barnstorming by the Globetrotters was especially hard.

Associated Press:

Mr. Lemon played for the Globetrotters during the team’s heyday from the mid-1950s to the late-1970s, delighting fans with his comedy, showmanship and basketball skills. Traveling by car, bus, train or plane nearly every night, Mr. Lemon covered nearly 4 million miles to play in more than 100 countries and in front of popes and presidents, kings and queens.

He averaged 325 games per year during his prime, his luminous smile never dimming despite the heavy workload.

“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” NBA great and former Globetrotter Wilt Chamberlain said shortly before his death in 1999. “People would say it would be Dr. J or even (Michael) Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”

Mr. Lemon spent 24 years with the Globetrotters, touring with the team until he left in 1979 to start his own team. He played on a variety of other exhibition teams before rejoining the Globetrotters for a short tour in 1994.

If you look at NBA rosters today, you will see players from dozens of countries. It’s a safe bet that the rise of the international game of basketball can be traced directly back to the Globetrotters and Meadowlark Lemon, who inspired and entertained fans in nearly 100 countries.

Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider summed up Lemon’s impact:

“For a generation of fans, the name Meadowlark Lemon was synonymous with the Harlem Globetrotters. 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.”

A unique individual to be sure. Lemon became an ordained minister in 1986 and established a church in Scottsdale, AZ. He touched the lives of millions through his good heart and good humor, and incomparable skills as a basketball player.

A vital soul whose passing is felt by all who were entertained by him.