He never stepped foot on an NBA court — not to play a game at basketball’s highest level, anyway. Yet, Meadowlark Lemon’s stamp on the game is unquestionable. He was an entertainer without peer, an absolute superstar who dedicated his skills, time and hard work to putting smiles on the faces of hundreds of thousands of people during his time with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Lemon played in more than 16,000 games in 100 countries with the Globetrotters, helping grow the global love for the game at large. To those too young to remember or know of Lemon, however, his passing Monday at age 83 is so many words on the digital page. Lemon was a legend, but one from an era — and from a team — forgotten today.
Look no further than the silence with which Lemon’s death was greeted by the NBA community. Old-timers such as Shaquille O’Neal and James Worthy shared their condolences, and the league offered its remembrances, as well. But the stars of today had little to say in the hours after Lemon’s passing, likely because they simply don’t know much about the basketball great. In that regard, the best in the world are like the rest of us.
And that’s a shame, because without the likes of Lemon, today’s game wouldn’t be the same. The flash of Dr. J. and the ABA owed no small debt of gratitude to the Globetrotters and Lemon, who helped show how entertaining the game could be. Beyond the trivial, the Globetrotters helped integrate the NBA, facing the Minneapolis Lakers in February 1948, when professional basketball was still segregated.
That progress came in the typical "two steps forward, one step back" fashion. The Globetrotters had to sleep on the team bus, since the hotels were off-limits to African-Americans. And when they gave the Lakers all they could handle, the crowd often wanted to see what many considered a vaudeville act playing out on the hardwood. Yet the Globetrotters emerged victorious with a last-second shot. Two years later, the NBA desegregated.
When Lemon joined the Globetrotters in the 1950s, the "Clown Prince of Basketball" pushed the country forward. The Globetrotters had demonstrated their prowess as basketball players by that point, laying claim to numerous national titles dating back to the 1940s on top of that win over the Lakers. And they just kept playing, barnstorming across the country alongside their chosen competition.
Through sheer exposure and force of will, Lemon, Curly Neal and the rest of the squad normalized the idea of African-Americans playing basketball for a largely white audience. By 1979, Lemon had surpassed his status as an athlete, appearing on the popular sitcom "Diff’rent Strokes." He would go on to movie roles as well, and the Globetrotters appeared in a 1981"Gilligan’s Island" movie, cementing his status as a true entertainer in every regard — and one who helped break down barriers.
Lemon was an ambassador for the players who came after him. He was a champion without a true foil, and he turned that lofty status into glee for everyday people. Lemon is the man on those old Globetrotters highlights who’s having fun with buckets of confetti, half-court hook shots and ridiculous dribbling, always with a smile on his face. In a year where we lost legends such as Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone before their time, it’s imperative that we celebrate Lemon for his accomplishments inside and outside the lines on the court.
His was a life of joy, lived to its fullest extent. His is the type of life that requires remembering. Don’t let Lemon’s passing fade because you don’t know who he was. Fire up some Globetrotters highlights, get your popcorn ready, and enjoy one of the greatest personalities ever to pick up the rock. Without him, you wouldn’t have the NBA you know and love today.