Meadowlark Lemon, the charismatic star of the Harlem Globetrotters for more than two decades, died Sunday in Scottsdale, Arizona, of undisclosed causes. He was 83.
Dubbed “the Clown Prince of Basketball” for his on-court prowess and humor, North Carolina native Lemon joined the team in 1954 shortly after a stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
He soon became one of the barnstorming team’s most dynamic players, performing around the world and on TV.
Lemon left the Globetrotters in 1978 due to a contract dispute. He later formed his own basketball teams, with names like the Bucketeers and the Shooting Stars. He continued to play well into his ’70s.
He was inducted in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
Lemon was one of the Globetrotters’ key players during its heyday of cultural influence. The team is now known primarily as an athletic sideshow for on-court comedic bits and trick plays but during its height, the Globetrotters were more famous than teams in the NBA, and often played to bigger crowds. Competition for top talent between the Globetrotters and NBA teams propelled the league to integrate more black players.
Lemon was famous for his long-distance hook shot, an over-the-shoulder underhand toss he could sink with astonishing accuracy, even when standing off court in a row of arena seating. One of his trademark comedy routines was chasing a referee with a bucket only to surprise the official with a shower of confetti rather than water.
Playing more than 16,000 career games for the Globetrotters between 1954 and 1979, Lemon performed for royalty, presidents and popes in more than 100 countries. He was also voted one of America’s most recognizable faces following Alan Alda, John Wayne and Bob Hope.