One day an eleven-year old boy watched wide-eyed in a movie house, as a basketball team–the Harlem Globetrotters–performed things on the big screen with a basketball that set him to dreaming.
Meadow George Lemon III was going to be a Harlem Globetrotter when he grew up.
A child’s dream? Yes, but this one came true beyond his wildest imagination. The Website of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts writes of the man who became famous as “Meadowlark” Lemon”:
“Few athletes in any sport have impacted their sport on a worldwide level more than Meadowlark Lemon. Perhaps the most well-known and beloved member of the Harlem Globetrotters, Lemon played in more than 16,000 games – 7,500 consecutively – for the Globetrotters in a career that began in 1954 and lasted until 1978. Known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball,” Lemon’s favored “can’t miss” halfcourt hookshot and comedic routines entertained millions of fans in more than 70 countries around the globe.”
The little boy had grown up to play basketball in front of popes, presidents and kings. He died in December of 2015 after becoming one of the most recognizable sports personalities in the world. (Watch Meadowlark play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMuy8QrXhZU)
Lemon was born in 1932 in Wilmington, North Carolina, and attended Williston Industrial School, graduating in 1952.
Meadow, who lengthened his name to Meadowlark after joining the Globetrotters — didn’t have money for a basketball when he was young. So he so he made a hoop in the backyard with a coat hanger attaching an onion sack for the basket.
He made began his “career” shooting an empty Carnation milk can in place of a basketball.
Lemon’s career with the Globetrotters started in 1954. He once observed that an NBA player would have to play 160 games a year for a hundred years to equal the number of games he played in his career.
Before he died this past December, 2015 at the age of 83, his basketball talent had taken him to places the little boy in the theater probably hadn’t known existed.
As one of the most popular Globetrotters he was known for half-court hook shots, behind the back passes and a steady stream of funny commentary and tricks on other players as well as the referees during the game.
The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame isn’t the only one which can claim him. He was also inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame.
He travelled nearly four million miles playing for millions of people who delighted at his antics and watched wide-eyed at his skill.
A smile always adorned his face.
Former Los Angeles Times Sports Writer, Jim Murray, said that Meadowlark was “an American Institution … He did more for basketball than 10 seasons of the Boston Celtics.”
Wilt Chamberlain was the only basketball player to ever score 100 points in an NBA game. He played one year for the Globetrotters. He says of Lemon, “”Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen.” “People would say it would be Dr. J or even (Michael) Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
And Michael Jordan called Lemon a “true national treasure” and a personal inspiration in his own youth.
“My destiny was to make people happy,” Lemon said.
The Man Behind the Smile
Strangely, he caused pain to those closest to him. Continual absences from his family, conflict and life-style addictions marked his personal life off the court.
“It sickens me to think back about it, about how low I had fallen. But I can’t deny it. No one can change as much as I have unless the person firsts admits his sins.” Meadowlark said.
His personal life fell apart because of extramarital affairs and gambling. His wife even tried to stab him. Eventually the couple divorced.
Still, he tried to excuse his actions by comparing himself to others that he felt were worse than him. He thought himself a Christian but one day the façade was ripped away and he saw himself as he was—a sinner in need of God.
Meadowlark prayed, “Dear God, I know that I’m a sinner and that I need forgiveness. I believe Jesus Christ died for me and will be my Savior if I receive Him as my Lord. Thank you for saving me and giving me eternal life.”
At first the going in his new life in Christ was a bit rocky. “It’s hard to go from being number one in your own life to taking a backseat to Jesus Christ,” he said.
A conversation with pastor Fred Price proved to be a turning point for him. “The things you want to do, you can’t do them anymore. They gotta die. That old Meadowlark Lemon is crucified. He’s gone. You’re a new creature in Christ,” the pastor told him.
And Lemon got serious. “I got into the Bible every day. I listened to tapes by Christian leaders … And once I got into it my life changed. The things God has done for me since I received Christ would make a whole other book.
“Most amazing I think is that my family, all five kids and my former wife became Christians the same year I did. They were all in different locations, under different circumstances but it happened to each one.”
For Lemon it wasn’t just a matter of talk or going to church occasionally. He did some hard things to straighten out his life.
“I’ve called people from my past to ask their forgiveness for the feelings of bitterness and anger and even hatred that I felt toward them. I was able to share scripture with them and many of them asked for my forgiveness too … When I started doing that a great weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
The last part of Lemon’s life was the best as he shared a message of faith through basketball. He became an ordained minister in 1986 and was also a motivational speaker. He traveled the country to meet with children at basketball camps and youth prisons with his Scottsdale-based Meadowlark Lemon Ministries.
“I feel if I can touch a kid in youth prison, he won’t go to the adult prison,” Lemon said.
Still Playing Basketball
And he kept playing basketball. He said he got up at 4 am to have time with the Lord, then he went to the gym to work out and practice. “I have to keep that hook shot working,” he said.
Pastor Duane Hoxworth once worked with Meadowlark in an outreach for kids. When he learned of Lemon’s death he wrote on Facebook:
“I just learned that one of my childhood heroes went home to be with Jesus last night. Meadowlark came to minister for me several years ago and conduct a basketball camp. We were able to reach scores of kids with his positive message and genuine faith in Jesus Christ … He was real and bigger than life, and so was his faith. I look forward to seeing his contagious smile and deep laugh in heaven someday, and I won’t be surprised if he has a basketball in his hand, too.”
The Washington Post quotes Meadowlark: “I have been called the Clown Prince of Basketball, and an Ambassador of Good Will in Short Pants to the world, which is an honor,” he wrote. “To be a child of God is the highest honor anyone could have.”
He gave credit to God for all he had accomplished.
“God planted that dream in my heart as I sat right there in the Ritz Theater,” Lemon wrote. “He gave me a relentless desire, determination, energy, and the talent to make my dream come true.”
Flicker Creative commons Derrick Lee Great Childhood Memories of Meadowlark Lemon… #rip #meadowlarklemon; Barbara moore
Me and Meadowlark Lemon; http://www.meadowlarklemon.org/biography/
Sources consulted: http://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/tag/meadowlark-lemon; Ex-Globetrotters Star Meadowlark Lemon Dies By JOHN MARSHALL, AP SPORTS WRITER; Wikipedia; “Thirty Impact Christian Athletes” by Michael Louthian; Washington Post; (Duane Hoxworth on Facebook), Website of Basketball Hall of Fame