Meadowlark Lemon | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Meadowlark Lemon

Photo courtesy United States Navy/PH2 Abbott

Photo courtesy United States Navy/PH2 Abbott

Fans can argue about who is the best basketball player ever all day long. Some will say it is Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James or several others.

However, one of the best players to ever play the game never played professional basketball in either the NBA or ABA. Meadow George Lemon III—better known as Meadowlark Lemon after legally changing his name—was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters during the team's heyday and height of popularity.

In this day and age, younger fans might not realize the importance of the Harlem Globetrotters or their importance to basketball, as the team doesn't have the appeal it once had in years past. For students of the game and those old enough to have seen the team, Lemon was one of the most amazing players to ever step on a basketball court.

The "Clown Prince of Basketball" was born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1932. He decided to join the Globetrotters when he saw a newsreel about the team when he was 11 years old. Although he was more than good enough to play professionally, Lemon truly wanted to entertain people.

Lemon joined the Globetrotters in 1954 after serving two years in the army. He missed a game in Germany due to a bowl of bad goulash, but by his calculations he played in 16,000 straight games for popes, kings, presidents and even the leaders of Moscow during the Cold War.

The Globetrotters even toured the racially torn South as Lemon played 325 games a year and traveled more than 4 million miles. Not bad for a kid who grew up not having enough money for a basketball, made his first hoop out of a coat hanger and an onion sack and made his first shot with an empty milk can.

Lemon was known for his no-look passes and half court hook shots, but his comedy bits might be even better known—like pretending to spy on the other team's huddle, dousing the referee with a bucket of water and then having a second bucket filled with confetti to throw at fans courtside or pulling an unsuspecting official's pants down.

Meadowlark was a rare combination of athletic skill and showman, who soared in popularity as he toured with the team from the 50's to 1978. He left the team that year due to a contract dispute.

While with the Globetrotters, Lemon become a pop culture star as well as a sports star. He appeared in the film "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh", "ABC's Wide World of Sports", "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine" and animated shows such as "The Harlem Globetrotters" and "Scooby-Doo".

After leaving the Globetrotters, Lemon started his own teams, such as Meadowlark Lemon's Buccaneers, The Shooting Stars and Meadowlark Lemon's Harlem All-Stars. He continued to play well into his 70s and rejoined the Globetrotters in the 90's for a comeback tour.

Lemon was honored several times for his basketball skills and his ability to make fans laugh. He received the John W. Bunn Award for his outstanding lifetime contributions to basketball and the International Clown Hall of Fame's Lifetime of Laughter Award in 2000, and was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. The basketball star has also been honored in his native North Carolina several times.

Lemon is one of five players and coaches associated with the Globetrotters to have their number retired. Besides Lemon's 36, the others are Chamberlain's 13, Fred "Curly" Neal's 22, Reese "Goose" Tatum's 50 and Marques Hayes' 20.

Later in life, Lemon founded Scottsdale- based Meadowlark Lemon Ministries, traveling across the country to deliver a message of faith and hope to children and to youths in prisons. Lemon also become an ordained minister in 1986 and was a motivational speaker.

Lemon passed away Sunday, Dec. 27, at his Scottsdale home at the age of 83.

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