HallPass Spotlight: Meadowlark Lemon
NCSHOF MEMBER MEADOWLARK LEMON (Class of 1975)
By HELEN ROSS
Meadowlark Lemon was widely known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball. And as he barnstormed the world with the Harlem Globetrotters, performing for kings and queens and even popes, he picked up another nickname – the “Ambassador of Goodwill in Short Pants.”
To the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, though, Lemon was simply this: “The most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen.
“People would say it would be Dr. J (Julius Erving) or even (Michael) Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
Chamberlain’s words came during a television interview produced by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1999, shortly before the NBA star died. He saw Lemon’s skills up close, too. The two played together for a year on the Globetrotters after Chamberlain turned pro early following Kansas’ triple overtime loss to North Carolina in the 1957 NCAA title game. Chamberlain later would play with the Globetrotters during the NBA offseasons, as well.
The two basketball savants had a running “ream,” which is what the Globetrotters called their comedy skits, where Chamberlain picked Lemon up off the ground and caught him after throwing him a few feet into the air. According to Wikipedia, the 210-pound Lemon said the 7-foot-2 center was the “strongest athlete who ever lived.”
Lemon grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he first saw a newsreel about the Globetrotters in a local movie theater when he was just 11 years old. Suddenly, Lemon had a calling. He built himself a makeshift basket, using a coat hanger for the rim and an onion sack for the net, then practiced shooting Carnation Milk cans into the hoop.
“When they got to the basketball court, they seemed to make that ball talk,” Lemon said when he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. “I said, ‘That’s mine; this is for me.’ I was receiving a vision. I was receiving a dream in my heart.”
Another Wilmington product – and fellow member of the Naismith and North Carolina Sports halls of fame – Michael Jordan called Lemon a “true national treasure.
“I watched him play for the Harlem Globetrotters when I was growing up and his skill with the basketball and dedication to the game were an inspiration not only to me, but to kids around the world,” Jordan said.
After two years in the Army, Lemon joined the Globetrotters in 1954. According to his website, Lemon played in more than 16,000 games – missing just one during his career — in more than 100 countries before he left the team in 1979 and started a trio of his own traveling all-star squads. One of those Globetrotter trips took Lemon and Chamberlain to the Soviet Union where the team was greeted by Communist Party secretary Nikita Khrushchev before a game at Lenin Central Stadium in Moscow.
Lemon was always the Globetrotters’ center of attention, known for his phenomenally successful half-court hooks and general hijinks like the one where he would dump a bucket full of confetti on a referee. He had Magic Johnson’s charismatic smile and larger-than-life personality before Magic Johnson did.
“Meadowlark always amazed me because of his rapport with the crowds that came out to see the Globetrotters,” said Rosey Grier, who was part of the Fearsome Foursome of the then-Los Angeles Rams. “He is the funniest guy in the world. The character that he played – that’s his personality. He makes people laugh and open to receive the job that he brings with him. I love that guy.”
Beloved worldwide, Lemon even received the Lifetime of Laughter Award from the International Clown Hall of Fame. During his later years, Lemon and his second wife, Dr. Cynthia Lemon, started the non-profit Meadowlark Lemon Ministries with a mission of “changing lives to change the world.”
When Lemon died at the age of 83 in 2015, the New York Times cited an interview he did in Sports Illustrated in 2010 where he was asked about not playing in the NBA.
“I don’t worry that I never played against some of those guys,” Lemon said. “I’ll put it this way. When you go to the Ice Capades, you see all these beautiful skaters, and then you see the clown come out on the ice, stumbling and pretending like he can hardly stay up on his skates, just to make you laugh.
“A lot of times, that clown is the best skater of the bunch.”