Meadowlark Lemon, the virtuoso shot maker and court jester known as the "Clown Prince of Basketball" during his barnstorming 24-year run with the Harlem Globetrotters, was a man who deserves to be remembered for being ahead of his time as much as a product of his time.
That isn't necessarily the consensus view of the man or his team, but understanding the complete context is vitally important when evaluating the life and impact of Lemon, who died Sunday in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 83.
Lemon grew up in the Jim Crow South. Segregation was still the norm in the U.S., and professional sports options for black athletes -- like opportunities for blacks in general -- were limited, even non-existent.
By the end of his antic-filled run after he took over for Goose Tatum as the Globetrotters' chief showman, Lemon was best known for stunts such as the half-court hook shots he regularly sank and tossing a bucket full of what turned out to be confetti. He'd sneak a ball attached to a large rubber band into games and throw a pass that would unexpectedly come snapping back to him, causing startled crowds to laugh in delight. He kept up an animated dialogue with other players, his own teammates and spectators during games, and it didn't seem to matter what corner of the world the Globetrotters were visiting. Crowds, especially kids, were charmed.
Lemon's charisma and basketball chops rarely were lost in translation.
"My destiny," he once said, "was to make people happy."
Of course, Lemon knew even by the time he ended his 10,000-plus games with the Globetrotters in 1978 that some folks derided the team and his on-court comedy bits as dated at best and a traveling minstrel show at worst.
But civil rights activist Jesse Jackson is among those who took a contrary view. Jackson once said the Globetrotters were a "positive" influence, and Jackson didn't distinguish between all those years the Globetrotters were beating the mostly white Washington Generals in exhibition games or taking on college and pro teams in legitimate competitions as early as the 1920s. Jackson's reasoning?
"[The Globetrotters] did not show blacks as stupid," he explained. "On the contrary, they were shown as superior."
Lemon seemed to reconcile the criticism he caught over the years in much the same way.
Five years ago, Lemon compared what he did to the clown in a travelling ice show who thrashes and dashes all over the ice, throwing off the impression that he wasn't very good at what he did when the truth was, said Lemon, it was all for laughs and the stunt man "was probably the best skater in the bunch."
Much like champion figure skaters and Olympic-level gymnasts, Lemon understood the magic of being a Globetrotter comes partly from making the extremely difficult look easy.
He never chose to try out for the NBA but never conceded that he wouldn't have made it, either. He simply loved what he did with the Globetrotters.
He was an unabashed entertainer long before that became the accepted norm in sports, and he was an accomplished athlete who helped break down racial barriers years before the civil rights era in the U.S. or black power protests leaked into events like the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
"He changed people's attitudes about race, he changed foreigners' attitudes about America, and along the way, he made millions love the game of basketball," said Mannie Jackson, a teammate of Lemon's and former CEO of the Globetrotters.
Various aspects of Lemon's background remain in dispute. Like many showmen, he never liked to advertise his age. There also remains some confusion as to whether he was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. But there is no confusion how he became smitten with his life's work.
During his induction speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, Lemon said the Globetrotters caught his eye when he was just 11. He said he always went to the segregated movie theatre in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Saturday mornings for the all-day shows, and when he saw the Globetrotters on a newsreel working their magic, he was instantly enthralled.
"When they got to the court, they seemed to make that ball talk, and I said, 'That's mine. This is for me,'" Lemon reminisced. "I was receiving a vision. I was receiving a dream in my heart."
Lemon said he hurried out of the theater that day before the show was even over and ran home, made a hoop from a coat hanger and a net from an onion sack and then nailed it to a tree so he could teach himself how to play basketball. He added that his famous half-court hook shot had a creation story, too: He began perfecting it even before he owned a basketball by swinging around on a pole on the side of the street opposite his homemade hoop and throwing a Carnation condensed milk can through his makeshift rim.
The year Lemon discovered the Globetrotters as a boy was 1943.
When the Globetrotters won two games against the Minneapolis Lakers, then one of the NBA's premier teams, in 1948 and '49, Lemon was still in high school. Besides legitimizing the Globetrotters as terrific players, not just showmen, the victories were often credited with the NBA's decision a year later to draft its first black player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950.
Lemon attended historically black Florida A&M college in 1952 but was drafted into the Army before he could finish. He cadged his first look from the Globetrotters in '54 while he was stationed in Austria and they were touring Europe. Once he began playing full time for the team after leaving the service and earning a tryout in 1955, he had an iron-man streak that would put Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken to shame. Team records say Lemon appeared in 7,500 consecutive games in more than 100 countries. (Legend has it the only one he missed before starting another streak was supposedly because of a bad bowl of goulash in Hungary.)
At just 6-foot-3, Lemon wasn't the tallest Globetrotter ever. Though he had a good handle, he wasn't the team's most magical dribbler, either. Marcus Haynes and Curly Neal laid claim to that. Lemon wasn't even the Trotters' most famous player. The great Wilt Chamberlain played a year with them in 1958 after he left the University of Kansas but before he was eligible to sign with the NBA. Lemon, however, was arguably the Globetrotters' most charismatic player of all time. Once the NBA began siphoning off the best African-American players, the Globetrotters turned even more to stunts and trick shots with Lemon as the ringleader.
"I'm amazed at the love the world has for Meadowlark Lemon," said Mannie Jackson, who introduced Lemon at his Hall of Fame ceremony.
When Lemon took the microphone, he reminisced about a year in which he and Jackson once used their annual vacation to hop in a car and travel around to pickup games where they kicked butt, took names and again left no doubt they were legit players.
"We showed people we could get down on them, and it felt good," Lemon said with a smile and a happy sigh. "But little did we know everyone already knew we could play."
The only time Lemon -- who became an ordained minister late in life and ran a youth ministry until his death -- cried during his Hall of Fame speech was when he apologized to a long list of family members for being on the road so long he didn't spend enough time with them.
As news spread Monday of Lemon's passing, plenty of past and present NBA players paid their respects. The Clippers' Jamal Crawford shared a fond memory about always wanting to meet Lemon and how great it was to play a trick-shot game of PIG (the shorter version of HORSE) against him last year. Shaquille O'Neal praised Lemon's ability to connect with people. Isiah Thomas tweeted that he would miss Lemon as an adviser, conversationalist and friend. LeBron James told reporters after the Cavs' morning shootaround Monday that Lemon was among the old-school players he has watched.
James said, "Any time a pioneer or someone who has given so much to the game is released from our brotherhood, our family, it's a sad day."
Years ago, Lemon suggested a possible epitaph for himself when he looked back on his life. His operating philosophy: If he could just get folks he encountered to smile and laugh, he believed it would open a pathway to get them to consider other points he wanted to make, overtly or not.
Lemon himself never seemed to believe he was some minstrel that people were laughing at. He felt they were laughing right along with him. That was something that was always in style, no matter what era you happen to be from.