Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Meadowlark Lemon - Beloved homegrown ‘Clown Prince’

A 1978 photo shows actress Goldie Hawn with Harlem Globetrotters' Meadowlark Lemon.
A 1978 photo shows actress Goldie Hawn with Harlem Globetrotters' Meadowlark Lemon. 1978 AP file photo

Meadowlark Lemon played his first game of basketball in the all-black neighborhood of Wilmington known as Brooklyn, where he crafted a hoop from a wire hanger and a net from a sack he found in his father’s cupboard, a few onions still rolling around the bottom.

Once he’d hammered his makeshift hoop to a neighbor’s tree, he fished an empty Carnation milk can out of the garbage, making a ball from the only round object he could find.

Then he took his first shots, firing them like baseballs, sinking 1 out of 10 until his father came home.

“Dad! Dad!” he shouted, 11 years old at the time. “I know what I want to be when I grow up. A Harlem Globetrotter! It’s a basketball team! They are great! They sing and dance and play basketball and they have guys named Goose and Sweetwater and Rookie and I’m gonna be one.”

A million shots later, after graduating from milk can to tennis ball, the Wilmington boy born Meadow George Lemon flourished into one of the world’s finest players, talented enough to hit hook shots from halfcourt, charming enough to entertain popes and presidents.

His death Sunday at 83 places a bookend on one of sports’ great Cinderella stories – a life that took a kid from segregated Wilmington, the son of a gambler who carried a switchblade, and sent him to play in Egypt and France. As a Globetrotter, he became famous for dumping buckets of confetti on the team’s usual victims, the hapless Washington Generals, antics that earned him the nickname “Clown Prince of Basketball” but never an NBA championship ring like another famous Wilmington kid who grew up to play basketball.

But Lemon never wanted the pro’s life. In 1971, he told The N&O he’d lived a more satisfying adventure.

“It’s beautiful to hear that laughter and applause when we’re out on that court doing our thing,” he said. “I’ll tell you something else. When you stand on that basketball floor and you see all the people laughing, you can’t tell what nationality they are. Czechs, Germans, Russians, Americans – they all look the same. They’re just people having a good time. With all the trouble in the world, sometimes I wish that all the problems could be rolled up in a Globetrotter game and settled out there on the floor.”

Star of the Globetrotters for two decades starting in the mid-1950s, Lemon grew from the same roots as Michael Jordan, honing his shot in the same Wilmington boys club under the same legendary teacher: Earl “Papa Jack” Jackson, a onetime football prospect at N.C. State University.

“When Michael was a kid,” Lemon told the website HoopsHype in 2014, “he said he wanted to be like me.”

He launched his basketball hopes on the strength of a newsreel he watched at the Ritz Theater in Wilmington in 1943, which showed the Globetrotters shooting layups “like ballet,” Lemon recalled in his 2010 autobiography. The sight of those players, all black, sent him home to practice without staying for the movie, and a decade later he was writing to the team begging for a chance.

“I have the spirit and go-gettiveness it takes to become a Globetrotter,” he wrote in 1952 – an era when it wasn’t ridiculous for an athlete to compose a resume. Once on the team, he lengthened his name, giving it more show and poetry.

“The birds named meadowlark are known for their sweet and happy songs,” he wrote in his online biography. “I always tried to put a song in the hearts of my fans.”

Lemon inhabited a basketball world he described as too rigorous for a modern pro: 16,000 career games played nearly every night, shuttled by buses, rental cars and ferries. Globetrotters in his day made $2,500 a year and were issued a pair of uniforms they were required to wash themselves. Not to mention the standard indignities endured by black players of the day. Lemon’s Globetrotters were denied entry to a Florida hotel that accommodated “Judy the Bowling Chimpanzee” in its largest suite.

During his years with the Globetrotters, Lemon appeared in hit TV shows like “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Alice,” voiced an animated version of himself on “Scooby Doo” and had a role in “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” but when he finally gave up playing he turned to the ministry, becoming an ordained minister in 1986.

He returned often to North Carolina from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., sometimes to preach.

But in 2006, he came back to see his name added to the Walk of Fame in Wilmington, where he had learned to shoot – one milk-can toss at a time.

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