American basketball player
Like a crazed captain at the helm of a ship, Meadowlark Lemon could take over a court and steer a crowd into the throes of laughter. During his 23 seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters, Lemon proved he was more than just a basketball player. Full of wisecracks and wise moves, Lemon became the "Clown Prince of Basketball," and night after night, year after year, he used his laughter-coaxing charisma to charm fans around the globe. In his career with the Globetrotters, Lemon played in more than 7,500 consecutive games and logged more than four million miles, charming audiences in more than 100 countries, from Algeria to Zimbabwe.
Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray once called Lemon "an American institution whose uniform should hang alongside the Spirit of St. Louis and the Gemini Space Capsule in the halls of the Smithsonian Institute."
Though more than 20 years have passed since Lemon was a staple in the Globetrotters' lineup, he remains the team's most well-known name and is better known than even the team's current stars.
Inspired by Globetrotters as Child
Meadow George Lemon III was born April 25, 1932, in Wilmington, North Carolina. When his parents separated a few years later, Lemon's mom moved to New York City. His father, Meadow George "Peanut" Lemon II, worked for the Wilmington Waste Paper & Recycling Co. and gambled to help make ends meet. Needless to
say, young Lemon spent a great deal of his childhood living with his aunt and uncle and cousins.
As a youngster, Lemon and his friends played football and spent their weekends at the Ritz movie theater, where they could watch a whole day's worth of shows for 25 cents.
When Lemon was 11, he went to the Ritz and saw a news clip that irrevocably changed the course of his life. The clip featured the Harlem Globetrotters, strutting their stuff to their theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown."
"They flew up and down the court, passing, dribbling, shooting, rebounding," Lemon recalled in his autobiography, Meadowlark. "My heart raced. My head nearly ached. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
It wasn't just the athletic prowess that captivated young Lemon. "It was the joy, the teamwork, the sense of family," Lemon recalled. "It was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen in my life."
Lemon bolted from the theater before the feature even started, leaving his buddies behind. Lemon's mind was made up: he would do whatever it took to become a Globetrotter. At the time, Lemon had never even touched a basketball—the neighborhood kids said the sport was for sissies. Undaunted, Lemon went home and crafted a basketball hoop from a clothes hanger and an onion bag. In place of a ball, he used an empty evaporated milk can and started shooting.
A year later, when Lemon was in the seventh grade, a Boys' Club opened in his neighborhood. Lemon finally got his hands on a genuine basketball, limp and flat as it was. He spent his free time at the Boys' Club, dedicating hours and hours to dribbling and ball-handling. In time, a man named Earl Jackson took an interest in Lemon. He showed the youngster how to shoot a right-handed hook shot. Lemon worked endlessly on the shot, until the motion felt fluid, instinctive. That's when Jackson showed him the left-handed hook shot, and he began all over again. It was a shot Lemon would become famous for as a Globetrotter.
During eighth grade, Lemon spent nearly every afternoon and every Saturday at the Boys' Club. Months and months had passed since he first began practicing, yet Lemon didn't feel as though he'd made any progress. The other boys seemed to possess a natural ability for the sport. Lemon yearned to float around the court instinctually, to find the rhythm of the game.
Lemon was good enough to make the Boys' Club basketball team—as a benchwarmer. Over the course of the season, however, Lemon worked his way off the bench and into the game. Finally, the game began to click. Lemon floated around the court gracefully, knowing when to gather speed, when to slow down, all the while pivoting, passing, and shooting.
Excelled at Football, Basketball
At Williston Industrial High School, Wilmington's all-black school, Lemon excelled at both football and basketball. He also found a friend and father figure in coach E. A. "Spike" Corbin. Throughout high school, Lemon spent many weekends at Corbin's house perfecting his game or just hanging out. At Williston, Lemon averaged 20 points per game his sophomore year and close to 30 his senior year.
|1932||Born on April 25 in Wilmington, North Carolina|
|1952||Drafted into the U.S. Army|
|1954||Joins Kansas City All-Stars|
|1955||Joins the Harlem Globetrotters|
|1970||Stars on television cartoon "The Harlem Globetrotters Show"|
|1971||Becomes player/coach for the Globetrotters|
|1979||Embarks on career in show business|
|1986||Becomes an ordained minister|
|1980s-present||Works as traveling evangelist|
|1993||Has 50-game "comeback" season with the Globetrotters|
|2002||Embarks on tour with the Meadowlark Lemon Harlem All-Stars|
As an All-State in both football and basketball, Lemon was courted by colleges across the United States. But he didn't want to go. All Lemon wanted to do was become a Globetrotter. Lemon spent the summer after high school graduation working with his father at the recycling company. Then one day, Lemon's father packed his suitcase and put him on a train to Tallahassee, Florida, saying he'd accepted a scholarship for Lemon to Florida A & M. College life didn't agree with Lemon, and he grew uneasy waiting for basketball season to begin. When his draft notice came, Lemon left college, although he could have received an education deferral and stayed. The United States was deep into the Korean War, and Lemon figured serving his country wasn't such a bad idea.
Tries Out for Globetrotters
Before leaving for basic training, Lemon returned to Wilmington and learned that the Globetrotters were coming to nearby Raleigh, North Carolina. He'd never seen them in person. Because the game was sold out, Lemon had his high school coach call Globetrotter promoter Abe Saperstein to get tickets. Coach Corbin and Saperstein were acquaintances.
Saperstein invited Lemon to the game. Because Saperstein wasn't able to attend the game, he told Globetrotter Marques Haynes to meet with Lemon and look him over. Just as the game was about to begin, Haynes tossed Lemon a uniform and told him to suit up because there wouldn't be time for a tryout later.
Lemon recalled the moment in his autobiography, "Just getting to see the Trotters would have been more than enough. I'd have paid. To meet Marques Haynes, that was bonus.… To wear a uniform stunned me. To play, unreal. I thought I was going to throw up."
Stunned, Lemon drifted around the court in a haze. He finally came to his senses, realizing he had to make the most of this opportunity. Lemon stepped up his game and soon, he was faking out the other team, driving toward the basket, and showing off with his reverse lay-up. The applause energized Lemon, and he pulled off an impressive performance.
Lemon was on a high when he shipped off to basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He spent two years in the military (1952-54), stationed in Salzburg, Austria. There, he sharpened his game while playing on an army base team, averaging 55 points per game. Combined, his teammates averaged just 13.
Becomes 'Clown Prince' of Basketball
Lemon left the Army after two years and was invited to join the Kansas City All-Stars, one of the opposition teams that toured with the Globetrotters. Within time, Lemon worked his way to the other side, and by 1955, was a bona fide Globetrotter.
With his zany, on-court persona, the six-foot-three Lemon soon established himself as the Globetrotters' most prolific court jester, earning the title "Clown Prince of Basketball." By the 1958-59 season, Lemon was the lead clown and held that position for the next 20 years. The team's lead clown oversees the game by managing the pace, along with the comedy routines.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1974||Received Presidential Citation from then-President Gerald Ford as part of Globetrotter team|
|1975||Inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame|
|2000||Received the International Clown Hall of Fame's Lifetime of Laughter Award|
|2000||Received the Basketball Hall of Fame's John Bunn Award|
A History of the Harlem Globetrotters
The Harlem Globetrotters came into being in the 1920s thanks to a young entrepreneur named Abe Saperstein, who had grown up watching black boys play basketball in the streets of Chicago. Their pure talent impressed Saperstein, and he envisioned a pro team for black players. At the time, they weren't allowed to play on the all-white professional teams. Though only five-foot-three, Saperstein had been a basketball star himself. In 1926, he pulled together a team called the Savoy Big Five because they played their games in Chicago's Savoy Ballroom.
In the early days of basketball, the professional teams didn't have home courts. They just traveled around, or "barnstormed." In 1927, Saperstein decided to take his team on the road, too. He called them the Harlem Globetrotters: Harlem to let people know they were black; globetrotters so they would think the team had traveled the world.
The Globetrotters played their first game in January 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois. The team spent the season traveling around in a Model T Ford, just five players and coach Saperstein. They barely made enough money to eat and spent many nights in the car. Playing night after night, the five players got tired; they had no substitutes. The ball-handling routines that made the Globetrotters famous grew out of a need to rest players. If one player showed off with the ball, the others could rest. The team also relied on showmanship to keep the scores down and the crowds from growing bored. In 1940, the team beat the Chicago Bruins at the World Tournament, winning the national pro title.
In 1950, Saperstein booked a tour to Western Europe and North Africa, making the team live up to its name. They garnered rave reviews and in 1952 played for the pope. Back home in the United States, they faced racial discrimination. While on the road in the South, restaurants refused to serve them. In many cities, they had to play two games in a day—one for the white crowd, and one for the black. Despite the hardships, the Globe-trotters endured.
More than 75 years have passed since the Globetrotters first set out in their Model T. To this day, they continue to travel around the world lighting up the hearts of the young and old alike.
Lemon's injury act was one of the crowd's favorites. The act began with Lemon dropping to the floor "in pain" after just the slightest contact with an opponent. When Wilt Chamberlain was on the team, he'd seize Lemon like a rag doll and cart him off the court, ball in hand. That's when Lemon would substitute a new ball-one with an elastic string. Lemon would step to the free-throw line and build the suspense by bouncing the ball. Naturally, when he shot the ball, it would soar upward, then snap back like a boomerang. Lemon would try to get rid of the ball by tossing it at the referee, but of course, it came right back. When the referee told Lemon to get rid of the ball, he'd return with a weighted ball that wobbled around. Or he'd hand the referee a ball so
full of holes it would deflate almost immediately. Lemon was a born actor, and the court became his stage. Game after game, year after year, the crowds laughed over this routine.
Over the years, Lemon refined his skills along with his comedy. Once, when the opposing team guarded Lemon so heavily he couldn't shoot, he shot the ball underhanded through the opponent's legs to score. The move garnered immediate laughs and was added to the routine. Another trademark of Lemon's was his non-stop yakking. Throughout the game, he talked in a highpitched voice that had even the fans in the upper seats laughing.
While his antics held a crowd's attention, Lemon's skills awed them. Game after game, Lemon amazed crowds with his uncanny ability to sink hook shots. He'd walk away from the basket, not even looking, and flip the ball over his head for two points. In his autobiography, A View from Above, Wilt Chamberlain writes that he would be happy to make that shot just once. "You can't practice those things," he wrote. "How do you practice a once-ina-lifetime shot, even though you're asked to make it every night? It's like practicing drowning."
Besides his antics and ball-handling skills, Lemon's other secret weapon was his wide smile. The more he smiled, the more the crowd laughed, and the laughter sustained him. "I couldn't believe the applause, the laughter. It was almost physical, lifting me, inspiring me, warming me," Lemon noted in his autobiography. "I couldn't get enough of it. Every night I could hardly wait to charge from the locker room into the gym to get another fix of crowd reaction."
"Globe-Trotting" Affected Family Life
Just after he left the Army, Lemon had married childhood friend Willye Maultsby. However, as Lemon's fame on the court advanced, his home life deteriorated. Lemon traveled ten months a year, playing more than 300 games, leaving his wife home with their five children.
Lemon was absent so often that his daughter Beverly wrote a school paper describing her father as a dishwasher because that's what she saw him do when he was home. Another daughter, Robin, told her teacher that her father lived at the airport.
Lemon and his wife began to argue, so he stayed away more and more. During the off-season, he jumped at the chance to do promotions for the team so he wouldn't have to go home. In time, Lemon was hitting the clubs with the other guys, picking up women. In his autobiography, Lemon said that he rationalized the behavior at the time. After all, he'd grown up in Wilmington watching other men do the same. He figured other women were just a part of married life. Needless to say, they divorced around 1977.
Moved from the Court to the Pulpit
In 1971, Lemon became both a coach and player for the Globetrotters, and his relationship with teammates began to slowly unravel. Playing both roles proved problematic, as petty jealousies and contract disputes popped up. Things turned so sour he quit in 1978.
Where Is He Now?
Lemon resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Cynthia. His organization, Meadowlark Lemon Ministries, is based there. Besides traveling around the United States preaching, Lemon hosts a weekly talk show for the Trinity Broadcasting Network, aptly titled, "The Meadowlark Lemon Show." On the program, he interviews athletes who attribute their skills to God.
In 2002, the 70-year-old Lemon began making plans to hit the basketball court again. He'd calculated that he'd played in nearly 10,000 games—but not quite. He organized a tour of the Meadowlark Lemon Harlem All-Stars to help him achieve his goal of playing 10,000 professional games. For an NBA player to achieve that feat, he would have to play 100 games a year for 100 years.
Following his retirement from the Globetrotters, Lemon received offers from Hollywood, and in 1979 appeared in The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh. In the film, he starred as a basketball-playing reverend alongside Philadelphia 76ers star Julius Erving . He also landed a spot on the TV sitcom "Hello, Larry" (1979 and 1980), where he played an aging athlete.
Sometime around 1979, Lemon formed his own basketball comedy act, called the Bucketeers. Former teammate Wilt Chamberlain joined the Bucketeers from time to time, although they still struggled financially and folded around 1982.
By the mid-1980s, Lemon had a new career as a jetsetting evangelist. As an ordained minister of a Christian non-denominational church, Lemon began traveling around the country talking about God. He also took a brief break from the ministry in 1993 for a 50-game "comeback" season with the Globetrotters. He also remarried and has ten children, three of them adopted.
Remembered for Bringing Laughter to World
Though Lemon has been out of the Globetrotter limelight for more than two decades, he has yet to fade from memory. In 2000, Lemon was awarded the Basketball Hall of Fame's John Bunn Award, given for outstanding contributions to basketball. He also received an award from the International Clown Hall of Fame.
To this day, Lemon is remembered as a basketball phenomenon, whose antics transcended race and culture. He was loved by the world around. The Globetrotters, along with Lemon, were so appreciated that former President Gerald Ford awarded the team a special 1974 Presidential Citation. He thanked the Globetrotters—and Lemon—for giving millions of people "the priceless gifts of love and laughter." Truly, that's what Lemon's life has been about, and no one has done it better.
Address: (care of Meadowlark Lemon Ministries) 13610N. Scottsdale Road, Ste. 10267, Scottsdale, AZ 85254. Phone: (480) 951-0030. Email: [email protected] foundation.org. Online: http://www.meadowlarklemon.org.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY LEMON:
(With Jerry B. Jenkins) Meadowlark. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987.
Chamberlain, Wilt. A View From Above. New York: Villard Books, 1991.
Lemon, Meadowlark and Jerry B. Jenkins. Meadowlark. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987.
Wilker, Josh. The Harlem Globetrotters. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.
Betowt, Yvonne. "Ex-Globetrotter Ministers to Kids Through Basketball." (Minneapolis) Star Tribune (April 6, 2002): 8B.
"Hall of Fame Honors Globetrotters' Lemon." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (August 9, 2000): 2C.
Kugiya, Hugo. "'I'm A Better Father Now.'" Seattle Times (June 18, 1993): C1.
"Basketball Hall of Fame Announces Prestigious John Bunn Award." Basketball Hall of Fame. http://www.hoophall.com/news/bunn_award080800.html(November 24, 2002).
"Ernie Harwell, Sportscaster." Radio Hall of Fame. http://www.radiohof.org/sportscasters/ernieharwell.html (November 21, 2002).
The Harlem Globetrotters. Troy, Michigan: Anchor Bay Entertainment, Inc., 1996.
"International Clown Hall of Fame." Meadowlark Lemon.com. http://www.meadowlarklemon.com/news_intclownoffame.html (July 31, 2000).
Sketch by Lisa Frick
"Lemon, Meadowlark." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lemon-meadowlark
"Lemon, Meadowlark." Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved September 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lemon-meadowlark