(Reuters) - Meadowlark Lemon, the court jester of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team who delighted audiences around the world for some 25 years with an array of trick shots, comedy routines and pure charisma, has died at the age of 83, the team announced on Monday.
Lemon, who had started a ministry and become a motivational speaker in his later years, died on Sunday in Scottsdale, Arizona, according to the Globetrotters website.
Lemon was the undisputed master of the long-range hook shot, rubber-band ball and other crowd-pleasing tricks during the years he wore the Globetrotters’ star-spangled red, white and blue uniform.
The team’s website said he played in 7,500 consecutive games - the equivalent of more than 92 NBA seasons - in some 100 countries before audiences that included everyone from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to three popes.
He was born Meadow Lemon III in Wilmington, North Carolina, and was unfamiliar with not just the Globetrotters but the game of basketball until he saw a newsreel about the team at a movie theater at the age of 11. He was entranced by the sight of black men taking such a joyous approach to a game during a time of segregation.
“They seemed to make that ball talk,” Lemon said when inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. “I said, ‘That’s mine. This is for me.’ I was receiving a vision, I was receiving a dream in my heart.'”
He rushed home from the theater that day and started fulfilling the dream by fashioning a basketball goal from a clothes hanger and an onion sack and using a tin can for a basketball.
After briefly attending Florida A&M University and serving in the U.S. Army, Lemon’s dream would be fully realized when he joined the Globetrotters in 1954. In 1958 he succeeded Goose Tatum as the team’s main clown, a position he held for 20 years.
The Harlem Globetrotters began in Chicago in the late 1920s, organized by a white businessman, Abe Saperstein, as a barnstorming team. It provided one of the few opportunities for black men who wanted to play professional basketball in the days of segregation, traveling the country and taking on community teams.
The forerunner of the National Basketball Association was established in 1946 but the league was all white until 1950, which gave the Globetrotters their pick of elite black players. While the NBA style of play was basic, deliberate and staid, the Globetrotters were playing with the flair that characterizes today’s NBA - acrobatic dunks, behind-the-back passes, flashy dribbling and a showman’s sensibilities.
In addition to other independent teams, the Trotters played college all-star teams and defeated the Minnesota Lakers, the top pro team, in 1948 and 1949.
Once the NBA began accepting black players, the Globetrotters’ talent pool became more shallow and they began to rely more on comedy and flash. Lemon was the focus of their appeal as their following grew in the 1960s and ‘70s.
They would start the show with a warm-up display of fancy passing and ball spinning in a mid-court circle to their whistled theme song “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Once the game began, Lemon was a grinning, always-chatting ringmaster, harassing referees and mocking opponents, who by then were stooge teams whose primary job was not to get in the way as the Globetrotters put on their show.
Lemon had a deep repertoire stunts, including a hook shot from mid-court and a routine in which he would get upset with a teammate and throw a bucket of confetti - the audience would be expecting water - at him.
Once a game, he would pretend to suffer a grievous injury and have to be helped to the sideline. When he returned to shoot his foul shot, he would sneak in a trick ball that would return to his hand on a long rubber band. He would then swap that ball with a weighted one to confound the referees.
The advent of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s caused some to brand the Globetrotters as minstrel show stereotypes, with much of the criticism falling on Lemon.
“I‘m an athlete but athletes are entertainers and entertainers can be comedians,” Lemon told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. “I‘m all of the above.”
Lemon left the Globetrotters in 1979 but returned for 50 games in 1994. He also started three comedy-basketball teams of his own over the years but none caught on like the Globetrotters.
In the 1979 movie “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” Lemon played a basketball-playing minister and a few years later started his own ministry.
In 2003 he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and cited for making significant contributions to the game.
Lemon was married twice and had 10 children. In 2015 his ex-wife, who he divorced in 1977, and 48-year-old son sued him for $250,000 in child support they said he did not pay.
Reporting by Bill Trott in Washington; Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe