I wish I could tell you that it was necessary for me to wear high-tops and basketball shorts to interview Meadowlark Lemon. But who am I kidding? Like everyone who's ever dribbled a ball, I've fantasized about being a Harlem Globetrotter, and there was no way I was going to let the most famous one of them all escape without getting him onto the court.
Meadowlark gets this a lot. At 78, he's been retired from basketball for 16 years and is an ordained minister and Christian evangelist living in Scottsdale, Ariz., but even those who want to praise the Lord with Meadowlark sometimes ask him to pick up the ball before the Bible. "I've gone to speak to congregations where there was a basket set up right there in the middle of the church," he says. "And the pastor says, 'Come on, show us what you got.' "
Then Meadowlark (Meadow is his given name; he added lark later) laughed hard, as he often does, which is only fitting for the man known as the Clown Prince of Basketball. During his more than 16,000 games all over the world with the Globetrotters, he brought so much joy to so many people that now they're returning the favor, recounting their memories of seeing him turn basketball into comic theater. "My dad probably still has confetti in his hair from when you dumped a bucket of it on him back in '65," a waiter tells him while we're having lunch, referring to one of the famous Globetrotter routines. A cardiologist who examined Meadowlark recently recalled how funny the Globetrotters were when he saw them as a little boy. In Greece. "Every day I have people thanking me for bringing them a little happiness," Meadowlark says. "Do you know what a blessing that is for me? Shoot, I was having more fun than they were."
He's not kidding. How many athletes can you think of who have never been booed? How many are members of both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the International Clown Hall of Fame? Meadowlark has played for presidents and popes, for the queen of England and the king of ... "just about any place you can think of that has a king," he says. He has played in a rickety gym with loose floorboards one night and in a palace the next. And he has more stories than he could fit in his new book, Trust Your Next SHOT: A Guide to a Life of Joy, which is part memoir, part inspirational and self-help guide. (SHOT stands for Spirit, Health, Opportunity and Teamwork.) In the book Meadowlark tells of some of his celebrity teammates—the Globetrotters always kept spare uniforms on hand for Bill Cosby and onetime Trotter Wilt Chamberlain—and even the occasional brush with death. He once agreed to a brief stint as a matador before a game in Mexico, an adventure that ended with his leaping into the stands to avoid his 800-pound pursuer. "Thank God I still had my jumping legs," he says.
October 31, 2010
Meadowlark keeps a red-white-and-blue basketball in his car and goes almost every day to a court at a Jewish community center near the home he shares with his wife, Cynthia, and the two youngest of his 10 children. When we went to the court, it didn't take much coaxing to get him to re-create some of the passes he used to throw in the Trotters' memorable Magic Circle warmups. All I had to do was catch the ball and pass it back to him, which wasn't as simple as it sounds because I was 1) busy whistling Sweet Georgia Brown in my head, 2) fighting the urge to drop to the floor and try to dribble on my knees like Meadowlark's old teammate Curly Neal, and 3) trying to keep track of the ball, which was orbiting Meadowlark's body as he deftly whipped it around.
I never knew when the pass would come, or from what angle. Meadowlark wrapped the ball around his back, under his arm and then looked to the left just as he clapped his hands together and flicked the ball to me on his right. I got my hands up in time to keep it from hitting me in the nose, then passed it back. "It's really not as complicated as it looks," he said as he bounced the ball off his biceps into his hand, palmed it, faked a behind-the-back pass that made me flinch (now I know how the Washington Generals felt) and then bounced a perfect pass off his forehead. "It's mostly about timing," Meadowlark said, "like a good comedian telling a joke, and exaggerating all the extra movement, really selling the pantomime."
A career on the road, selling the pantomime, has its costs—Meadowlark wishes he could get back the time he missed with his older children. But he has no such regrets over missing the NBA. "When I started with the Globetrotters, we were bigger than the NBA," he says. "I don't worry that I never played against some of those guys. I'll put it this way: When you go to the Ice Capades, you see all these beautiful skaters, and then you see the clown come out on the ice, stumbling and pretending like he can hardly stay up on his skates, just to make you laugh. A lot of times that clown is the best skater of the bunch."
The last trick Meadowlark wanted to show me was his trademark half-court hook shot. A few people had gathered on the running track above the court, watching as he narrowly missed five of them. As he walked to the sideline, he gave the ball one final hard bounce toward the rim from about 15 feet away. Swish. Meadowlark did an exaggerated double-take, delighting the onlookers. A great clown always leaves them laughing.
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"My dad probably still has confetti in his hair from when you dumped a bucket on him back in '65," a waiter tells Meadowlark while we're having lunch.