Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Meadowlark Lemon

It's been hard for me to decide whether to write about Meadowlark Lemon, who died on Sunday at age 83, on my sports blog or my entertainment blog.

In a sense, I suppose, all athletes are entertainers, and Meadowlark Lemon, as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, was clearly an entertainer. But I'm including him on my sports blog because my earliest memories of him are in a sports context.

You see, I saw him play once when I was in elementary school. I grew up in a then–small town in Arkansas about 30 miles northwest of Little Rock, and the Globetrotters brought their act to Little Rock one night. I was probably 6 or 7 years old, and I don't remember now whether I asked my father to take me to see them play or if he surprised me with the tickets.

Either way, we were on hand when the Globetrotters took the court against whoever they were playing that night — the opposing team was merely a prop for the Globetrotters to make their magic, but I didn't know that. I thought it was a real game. I didn't know it was fixed.

And I was definitely entertained — when Meadowlark did his patented sky hook from midcourt. Swish! If he kept making that shot, I thought to myself, the Globetrotters would win for sure.

I began to suspect, though, that it wasn't a legitimate game when the opponents made no apparent effort to keep the Globetrotters from scoring — or doing much of anything else. And my memory is that the Globetrotters did win — handily.

As I understand it, the Globetrotters began as a somewhat legitimate basketball team in the first 15 years of their existence. They played exhibition games, sure, but the effort to win was always there. They were regulars in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, which was held from 1939 to 1948. They even won it once.

But after a fellow named Goose Tatum joined the Globetrotters, the emphasis shifted to entertainment. And no one exemplified that spirit better than Meadowlark Lemon, who was known as the "Clown Prince of Basketball."

He had been with the Globetrotters for about 12 or 14 years when I saw him play, and he was featured prominently in the advertising for the game.

I can still remember the ads in the newspaper — "Come see Meadowlark Lemon and the Harlem Globetrotters," the ads urged. Notice that Meadowlark got top billing.

To those who are unfamiliar with their history, the Globetrotters, who will be celebrating their 90th anniversary in 2016, seem to be the definition of discrepancy.

A team that calls Harlem its home actually began half a continent away in Chicago, from which all the original players came. Many went to school together. Their coach picked Harlem as their hometown to give them a truly out–of–town–sounding name. Well, also because the players were black, and Harlem was regarded at the time as the epicenter of black American culture.

The Globetrotters didn't play their first home game in Harlem until almost 40 years after the team was formed.

The Globetrotters were also sharply criticized during the civil rights movement of the '60s. Because nearly all of their players were black and their show consisted mainly of slapstick skits, they were accused of "Tomming" for the team's Jewish owner/coach. But none other than Jesse Jackson defended them, saying, "I think they've been a positive influence. ... They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior."

And Pope Pius XII, after granting the Globetrotters a private audience and seeing them do their "Magic Circle" ballhandling exhibition, exclaimed, "My, how clever these men are. If I had not seen this with my own eyes, I would not have believed it could be done."

The current Globetrotters have met Pope Francis. They made him an honorary Globetrotter.

Meadowlark wasn't on hand for the meeting with Pius XII or the one with Francis. John Paul II was named an honorary Globetrotter in 2000, and Meadowlark probably missed that one, too. Only nine people have been named honorary Globetrotters, and Meadowlark probably was on hand for the first two — Henry Kissinger in 1976 and Bob Hope in 1977.

Meadowlark played a huge role in the popular success of the Globetrotters, and I am supremely grateful for the memory of seeing him play that night when I was 6 or 7.

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