8 Things You Didn't Know About Meadowlark Lemon, the Clown Prince of Basketball

            

Before Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, Meadowlark Lemon, who has died at age 83, was the most famous basketball player on Earth -- playing in 16,000 games in more than 100 countries.

1. When He Joined the Globetrotters in 1954, They Were the Best Team on Earth

The Harlem Globetrotters was originally formed because black players were not allowed to play in professional leagues. The Globetrotters would play anyone -- college teams, semi-pro teams, European teams -- and NBA teams. They beat them all. Soon, the NBA realized it must integrate to survive. A young Meadowlark Lemon is on the upper right.

2. He Played with Wilt Chamberlain

Even though Wilt Chamberlain could have played immediately in the NBA after his college days at Kansas, he chose to play one year with the Globetrotters because of what they represented to African Americans. He became lifelong friends with Meadowlark Lemon. 

“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” Chamberlain said before he died in 1999. “People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”

 

3. Rather Than Play in the NBA, He Stayed with the 'Trotters

With the top black talent now being drawn to the NBA, the Harlem Globetrotters became ambassadors for the game of basketball, entertaining crowds with ballhanding tricks and comedy routines, but never letting them forget they were extremely talented players. 

Lemon (front center) was a slick ballhandler and a virtuoso passer, and he specialized in the long-distance hook, a trick shot he made with remarkable regularity. But it was his charisma and comic bravado that made him perhaps the most famous Globetrotter. Fun routines: spying on the opposition’s huddle; chasing referees with a bucket and surprising them with a shower of confetti instead of water; mimicking a hitter in the batter’s box and, with teammates, pantomiming a baseball game.

4. He Became a Full-Fledged Icon in the 1970s

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.” 

5. And an International Ambassador

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. Known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball,” he averaged 325 games per year during his prime, that luminous smile never dimming.

6. He Was Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame -- and the International Clown Hall of Fame!

It was a sign of his crossover appeal. Also, he is only one of five Globetrotters players to have his number retired. Aside from Lemon's No. 36, other Globetrotters to have their numbers retired are Wilt Chamberlain (13), Fred "Curly" Neal (22), Marques Haynes (20) and Goose Tatum (50).

7. He Took Being a Role Model Seriously

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 (Arizona)-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.

8. He Never Stopped Playing Basketball

He never lost touch with his beloved sport. Until the end, 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.

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