Meadowlark Lemon, a star with the Harlem Globetrotters for nearly a quarter century, died on Sunday at the age of 83. He had dreamed of playing for the Globetrotters when he was growing up in the Jim Crow South and joined the team in 1954 after serving in the Army. He went on to arguably become its preeminent player, earning the moniker “the clown prince of basketball.”
Created in the 1920s, the Globetrotters provided one of the few opportunities for African-American men who wanted to play professional basketball. Wilt Chamberlain, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, spent one year with the team before joining the NBA in 1959.
“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” Chamberlain said in a television interview shortly before his death in 1999, according to the New York Times. “People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
Lemon was an elite athlete. He thrilled audiences with his long hook shots and ballhandling skills. But he and the Globetrotters emphasized their comedic side as well. Lemon would throw buckets of confetti on unsuspecting referees and fake injuries, among other gags.
Lemon left the Globetrotters in 1978 over a contract dispute and subsequently formed his own traveling teams, including Meadowlark Lemon’s Bucketeers and Meadowlark Lemon’s Harlem All-Stars. His likeness also appeared on the cartoon series Scooby Doo.
After his retirement, he became a Christian minister and along with his wife founded Meadowlark Lemon Ministries in 1994.