Meadowlark Lemon may be best remembered as the "Clown Prince of Basketball," but the former Harlem Globetrotters star, who passed away on Sunday at age 83, also deserves credit for helping basketball become a bigger crossover success.
For two decades, he was the face of the Globetrotters during arguably their most ubiquitous period, which included appearances in everything from Saturday morning cartoons to variety shows and admittedly cheesy B-movies. And while it was his on-the-court buffoonery that made him a star, his genuine basketball skills were never in question.
"Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I've ever seen," NBA icon Wilt Chamberlain once said. "People would say it would be Dr. J or even [Michael] Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon."
Chamberlain played on the Globetrotters opposite Lemon before breaking into the NBA, and that team's success helped make racial integration in the NBA possible. Although not as widely publicized as Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, the entry of ex-Globetrotter Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton in 1950 into the all-white pro-leagues alongside two other African-American players was almost as significant.
And for many up-and-coming basketball fans in the '50s, '60s and '70s, Lemon's Globetrotters provided the first exposure for many mainstream audiences to black players and a more liberated style of play. Now, no-look passes and slam dunks are part of the NBA's DNA — but that may never have happened had the Globetrotters not enjoyed a national following.
“I, growing up, was living in Hawaii, which didn’t have that many African-Americans and whenever the Globetrotters came into town it was just a wonderful, fun-filled afternoon, but had I think some deeper meaning to it,” a then-Sen. Barack Obama said in a 2005 documentary tribute to the team.
Lemon purportedly played in 7,500 consecutive games, missing just one in 24 years, and his website claims he played in a total of 16,000 in more than 100 countries. Mannie Jackson, the current owner of the Globetrotters, said during a 2003 NBA Hall of Fame induction speech that Lemon "changed people's attitudes about race, foreigners' attitudes about America and along the way he made millions love the game of basketball."
"I know around the world he's known as a master comic, but those of us who played with him knew him as an unusually gifted athlete. Off the court I knew him as a serious speaker, an analyst, a deep thinker, a gentle-but-strong man and a thoughtful human being who always cared deeply about what he was and what had been given to him," he added. There were however critics of Lemon's goofball routines — with some uncomfortable comparisons to self-hating minstrel shows of the turn of the century — but time has been kinder to the infectious nature of his performances.
"The many times I saw Meadowlark Lemon play in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I knew then that he was more much more than a shuckin', jivin' basketball clown and court jester," author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson told MSNBC on Monday. "He was the consummate professional who tossed the spotlight on the savvy and mastery of blacks on the court at a time when blacks were excluded and then marginalized in the pro game. Legions of pro players today owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to him for the role he played in breaking down racial barriers."
Ironically, Lemon never got a chance to show his stuff on the NBA stage, even though he was inducted in their Hall of Fame.
"When I started with the Globetrotters, we were bigger than the NBA," Lemon told Sports Illustrated in 2010. "I don't worry that I never played against some of those guys. 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."