Meadowlark Lemon, whose halfcourt hook shots, no-look behind-the-back passes and vivid clowning were marquee features of the feel-good traveling basketball show known as the Harlem Globetrotters for nearly a quarter-century, died on Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 83.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Cynthia Lemon, who did not specify the cause.
A gifted athlete with an entertainer’s hunger for the spotlight, Lemon, who dreamed of playing for the Globetrotters as a boy in North Carolina, joined the team in 1954, not long after leaving the Army. Within a few years, he had assumed the central role of showman, taking over from the Trotters’ long-reigning clown prince Reece Tatum, whom everyone called Goose.
Tatum, who had left the team around the time Lemon joined it, was a superb ballplayer whose on-court gags — or reams, as the players called them — had established the team’s reputation for laugh-inducing wizardry at a championship level.
This was a time when the Trotters were known for more than their comedy routines and basketball legerdemain; they were also recognized as a formidable competitive team. Their victory over the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 was instrumental in integrating the National Basketball Association, and a decade later their owner, Abe Saperstein, signed a 7-footer out of the University of Kansas to a one-year contract before he was eligible for the N.B.A.: Wilt Chamberlain.
By then, Lemon, who was 6 feet 3 inches tall and slender, was the team’s leading light, such a star that he played center while Chamberlain played guard.
Lemon 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. For 22 years, until he left the team in 1978, Lemon was the Trotters’ ringmaster, directing their basketball circus from the pivot. He imitated Tatum’s reams, including spying on the opposition’s huddle, and added his own.
He threatened referees or fans with a bucket that like as not was filled with confetti instead of water. He dribbled above his head and walked with exaggerated steps. He mimicked a hitter in the batter’s box and, with teammates, pantomimed a baseball game. And both to torment the opposing team — as time went on, it was often a hired squad of foils — and to amuse the appreciative spectators, he smiled and laughed and teased and chattered; like Tatum, he talked most of the time he was on the court.
The Trotters played in mammoth arenas and on dirt courts in African villages. They played in Rome before the pope; they played in Moscow during the Cold War before the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev. In the United States, they played in small towns and big cities, in Madison Square Garden, in high school gyms, in cleared-out auditoriums — even on the floor of a drained swimming pool. They performed their most entertaining ballhandling tricks, accompanied by their signature tune, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Through it all, Lemon became “an American institution like the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty” whose “uniform will one day hang in the Smithsonian right next to Lindbergh’s airplane,” as the Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray once described him.
Significantly, Lemon’s time with the Globetrotters paralleled the rise of the N.B.A. When he joined the team, the Globetrotters were still better known than the Knicks and the Boston Celtics and played for bigger crowds than they did. When he left, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were about to enter the N.B.A. and propel it to worldwide popularity. In between, the league became thoroughly accommodating to black players, competing with the Globetrotters for their services and eventually usurping the Trotters as the most viable employer of top black basketball talent.
Partly as a result, the Globetrotters became less of a competitive basketball team and more of an entertainment troupe through the 1960s and ’70s. They became television stars, hosting variety specials and playing themselves on shows like “The White Shadow” and a made-for-TV “Gilligan’s Island” movie; they inspired a Saturday morning cartoon show.
In Lemon’s early years with the team, as the Globetrotters took on local teams and challenged college all-star squads, they played to win, generally using straight basketball skills until the outcome was assured. But as time went on, for the fans who came to see them, the outcome was no longer the point.
On Jan. 5, 1971, the Globetrotters were beaten in Martin, Tenn., by an ordinarily more obliging team, the New Jersey Reds. It was the first time they had lost in almost nine years, the end of a 2,495-game winning streak. But perhaps more remarkable than the streak itself was the fact that it ended at all, given that the Trotters’ opponents by then were generally forbidden to interfere with passes to Lemon in the middle or to interrupt the familiar reams.
Lemon, as the stellar attraction, thrived in this environment, but he also became a lightning rod for troubles within the Globetrotter organization. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, the players’ antics on the court drew criticism from outside for reinforcing what many considered to be demeaning black stereotypes, and Lemon drew criticism from inside.
Not only was he the leading figure in what some thought to be a discomforting resurrection of the minstrel show, he was also, by far, the highest-paid Globetrotter, and his teammates associated him more with management than with themselves. When the players went on strike for higher pay in 1971, Lemon, who negotiated his own salary, did not join them.
After Saperstein died in 1965, the team changed hands several times, and in 1978, according to “Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters” (2005), by Ben Green, Lemon was dismissed after a salary dispute. He subsequently formed his own traveling teams — Meadowlark Lemon’s Bucketeers, the Shooting Stars and Meadowlark Lemon’s Harlem All-Stars — and continued performing into his 70s.
His website says he played in 16,000 games, an astonishing claim — it breaks down to more than 300 games a year for 50 years — and in 100 countries, which, give or take a few, is probably true.
Lemon was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 2003. There he joined another Globetrotter, Marques Haynes, who was inducted in 1998 and whom some called the world’s greatest dribbler. Haynes died in May at 89.
Whatever ill feelings arose during Lemon’s Globetrotter days, they were drowned out by his celebrity and the affection with which he was received all over the world.
“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” Chamberlain said in a television interview not long before he died in 1999.
“People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan,” Chamberlain went on, referring to Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. “For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
The facts of Lemon’s early life are hazy, and evidently he wanted it that way. His birth date, birthplace and birth name have all been variously reported. The date most frequently cited — and the likeliest — is April 25, 1932. Many sources say he was born in Wilmington, N.C., but The Wilmington Star-News reported in 1996 that he was born in Lexington County, S.C., and moved to Wilmington in 1938. His website says he was born Meadow Lemon, though many other sources say his name at birth was George Meadow Lemon or Meadow George Lemon. The Star-News said it was George Meadow Lemon III. He became known as Meadowlark after he joined the Globetrotters.
As a boy in Wilmington, he learned basketball at a local boys’ club; he told The Hartford Courant in 1999 that he was so poor that he practiced by using a coat hanger for a basket, an onion sack for a net and a Carnation milk can for a ball. After high school, he briefly attended Florida A&M University before spending two years in the Army.
Stationed in Austria, he played a few games with the Trotters, who were then touring Europe, and he performed well enough to earn a tryout after he mustered out. He was assigned to a Globetrotters developmental team, the Kansas City Stars, before joining the Trotters in 1954.
Asked about never having played in the N.B.A., Lemon told Sports Illustrated in 2010, “I don’t worry that I never played against some of those guys.”
He added: “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.”
Lemon lived in Scottsdale. His first marriage, to the former Willye Maultsby, ended in divorce. (In 1978, she was arrested after stabbing him on a Manhattan street.) He had 10 children. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
In 1986, Lemon became an ordained Christian minister; he and his wife founded a nonprofit evangelistic organization, Meadowlark Lemon Ministries, in 1994.
“Man, I’ve had a good run,” he said at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, recalling the first time he saw the Globetrotters play, in a newsreel in a movie theater in Wilmington when he was 11.
“When they got to the basketball court, they seemed to make that ball talk,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s mine; this is for me.’ I was receiving a vision. I was receiving a dream in my heart.”