Meadowlark Lemon, the “clown prince” of basketball’s barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters, whose blend of hook shots and humor brought joy to millions of fans around the world, has died. He was 83.
Lemon’s wife and daughter confirmed to the team that he died Sunday in Scottsdale, Arizona, Globetrotters spokesman Brett Meister said Monday. Meister did not know the cause of death.
Though skilled enough to play professionally, Lemon instead wanted to entertain, his dream of playing for the Globetrotters hatched after watching a newsreel of the all-black team at a cinema house when he was 11.
Lemon ended up becoming arguably the team’s most popular player, a showman known as much for his confetti-in-the-water-bucket routine and slapstick comedy as his half-court hook shots and no-look, behind-the-back passes.
A sign of his crossover appeal, Lemon was inducted into both the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the International Clown Hall of Fame.
“My destiny was to make people happy,” Lemon said as he was inducted into the basketball hall as a contributor to the game in 2003.
Lemon played for the Globetrotters during the team’s heyday from the mid-1950s to the late-1970s, delighting fans with his skills with a ball and a joke. 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.
“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” NBA great and former Globetrotter Wilt Chamberlain said shortly before his death in 1999. “People would say it would be Dr. J or even (Michael) Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
Lemon spent 24 years with the Globetrotters, doing tours through the racially torn South in the 1950s until he left in 1979 to start his own team.
He was one of the most popular athletes in the world during the prime of his career, thanks to a unique blend of athleticism and showmanship.