This morning, we were hit with the somber news that the basketball community lost another legend. George “Meadowlark” Lemon, the renowned star and supreme showman with the Harlem Globetrotters passed away at the age of 83.
Meadowlark played for the Trotters in an era when they were among the best basketball teams in the world, a formidable squad stacked with talent whose laughter inducing gags overshadowed their elite skills and acumen.
People forget that the Harlem Globetrotters were the impetus toward the integration of the NBA. And prior to joining the league due to rules restricting the signing of underclassmen, the best player on the planet, the University of Kansas’ Wilt Chamberlain, suited up for them at the apex of his athletic excellence.
Lemon was known as the “Clown Prince” of the game during his heyday in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His fame transcended sports, as any kid from my generation who watched Scooby Doo, Gilligan’s Island and The White Shadow will attest.
“For a generation of fans, the name Meadowlark Lemon was synonymous with the Harlem Globetrotters,” Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider said. “He was an incredible entertainer and brought happiness and lifelong memories to millions around the world. We have lost a great ambassador of the game.”
If you think the 1992 Dream Team with Magic, Michael, Barkley and Larry Bird were solely responsible for the global explosion of basketball, you’re tremendously uninformed.
Meadowlark Lemon and his Globetrotter colleagues like Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes, Curly Neal and Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson were spreading the gospel of the no-look behind-the-back pass and the vicarious exhilaration of the alley-oop and the high flying showman across the globe before Michael Jordan was even born.
A phenomenal dribbler and passer, Lemon’s hook shot from as far away as half court was mind-boggingly accurate. Outside of his exceptional game, he had a charisma that endeared him to millions of fans in over 100 countries during his career.
At his apex, the Globetrotters brand was better positioned and much more popular than marquee NBA franchises like the Lakers, the Knicks or the Celtics. When the Trotters began to lose their relevancy in the late ‘70s and when he ultimately left the game in the early ‘80s, we were beginning to witness the revolution of Magic, Bird and Michael that would propel the NBA into the commercial behemoth that it has since become.
But don’t ever think for a minute that Meadowlark Lemon does not belong on the continuum of Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Chamberlain, Kareem and Doctor J: the stylistic greats who set the table that the ensuing generations later gorged themselves from.
“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” Wilt Chamberlain once said in a television interview shortly before his death. “People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, Lemon joined the Army after briefly attending Florida A&M University. He was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
Today, as we mourn his loss, take a moment to listen to Sweet Georgia Brown, and pay homage to a man who helped elevate the sport of basketball into the most beautiful and artistic game in the world.