*Meadowlark Lemon, known as the “clown prince” of basketball’s celebrated Harlem Globetrotters, whose blend of hook shots and humor brought joy to millions of fans around the world, has died. He was 83.
Lemon’s wife and daughter confirmed that he died Sunday in Scottsdale, Arizona, Globetrotters spokesman Brett Meister said Monday. Meister did not know the cause of death.
Though he had the skills to play professionally, Lemon opted to entertain, and found the perfect vehicle after watching a newsreel of the all-black Globetrotters at a cinema house when he was 11.
Lemon ended up becoming arguably the team’s most popular player, a showman known as much for his confetti-in-the-water-bucket routine and slapstick comedy as his half-court hook shots and no-look, behind-the-back passes.
A sign of his crossover appeal, Lemon was inducted into both the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the International Clown Hall of Fame.
He played for the Globetrotters during the team’s heyday from the mid-1950s to the late-1970s. Traveling by car, bus, train or plane nearly every night, Lemon covered nearly 4 million miles to play in over 100 countries and in front of popes and presidents, kings and queens, notes the Associated Press. He averaged 325 games per year during his prime, that luminous smile never dimming.
“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.”
Lemon spent 24 years with the Globetrotters, doing tours through the racially torn South in the 1950s until he left in 1979 to start his own team, The Bucketeers. He went on to play on a variety of teams before rejoining the Globetrotters for a short tour in 1994.
Lemon became an icon in the 1970s, appearing in movies, including “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” numerous talk shows and even a stint in the cartoon “Scooby Doo,” with Scatman Crothers doing his voice.
Lemon spent the last years of his life trying to spread a message of faith through basketball. He became an ordained minister in 1986 and was a motivational speaker, touring the country to meet with children at basketball camps and youth prisons with his Scottsdale-based Meadowlark Lemon Ministries.
“I feel if I can touch a kid in youth prison, he won’t go to the adult prison,” Lemon said in 2003.
He never lost touch with his beloved sport. Lemon said he rose every day at 4 a.m. and, after prayers, headed for the gym to run sprints and practice shooting.
“I have to keep that hook shot working,” he said.
Born in 1932, Meadow George Lemon III — he lengthened his name after joining the Globetrotters — didn’t have money for a basketball when he was young, so he rigged up a makeshift hoop in his backyard in Wilmington, North Carolina. Using a coat hanger and onion sack for the basket, he made his first shot with an empty milk can.
Lemon first contacted the Globetrotters before his high school graduation and joined the team in 1954. He missed a game in 1955 because of a bad bowl of goulash in Germany, but that was the last one. What followed was a run, by his calculations, of more than 16,000 straight games that took him to places he never could have imagined.