SCOTTSDALE, Arizona (Reuters) - Harlem Globetrotters great Meadowlark Lemon remembers the day he first saw the team that would become his life’s story as if it were yesterday.
In the darkened Ritz Theater in Wilmington, N.C., he sat mesmerized as newsreel footage showed the famous tricksters of basketball going through their paces to the delight of fans.
“I saw them when I was 11 years-old and that became my life’s work,” Lemon told Reuters, following a workout on a basketball court near his adopted home in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I had the desire, a vision to make it my life’s work and that’s what I did.”
Now, the 78-year-old is out with a new book that tells of his growing up in a poor neighborhood in the segregated south to become the celebrated “Clown Prince of Basketball,” known to generations of fans in the U.S. and around the world.
The book, “Trust Your Next SHOT: A Guide to a Life of Joy,” is both a memoir and a book in which he shares his philosophies on a successful life, filled with a heaping dose of stories from a Hall of Fame basketball career that spans more than 16,000 games and continues to this day.
The Globetrotters were formed in the 1920s, initially as a serious team. Years later they transformed into an exhibition squad that mixed skill, entertainment and comedy on the court.
Lemon joined the team in 1955 and would become one of the its star players — and tricksters — as it traveled around the world as ambassadors for basketball.
In the book, Lemon traces his move from the court to the pulpit, preaching his own brand of self-help wisdom.
“We tell kids, ‘don’t drink, don’t smoke,’ but we don’t tell them how to do that,” said Lemon, an ordained minister. “This book does tell them, how you can live a better life. It’s the way I go about things today.”
Lemon said his way is all about taking a SHOT, an acronym for Spirit, Health, Opportunity and Teamwork, as a guide to life on and off the court.
The always smiling basketball star said he developed his philosophies on life from coaches such as Earl “Poppa Jack” Jackson, a father figure who taught him his trademark hook shot at the Boys Club.
“Wherever there’s a gym, an athletic field, you’ll find a Poppa Jack and if you’re sincere about what you want to do ... he will find you,” he said.
While traveling with the Globetrotters, Lemon confronted the sting of racial discrimination.
“There’s no word for that kind of pain,” recalled Lemon, about the treatment of African-Americans in the United States during that time. “It a different kind of pain.”
He took to heart words by Globetrotters owner and coach Abe Saperstein, who told him to fight the situation by “making them laugh.” And that is what Lemon specialized in.
He spent 26 years with the Globetrotters, traveling to more than 100 countries and playing before kings and queens, popes and presidents. He played on courts fashioned from an empty pool in Germany, a bull ring in Spain and a makeshift court on an Italian beach.
He also played with such NBA stars as Wilt Chamberlain, who he said was as good as it gets.
Lemon formed three other exhibition teams on his own, and he still plays at least 60 games a year with his Harlem All-Stars squad.
He said he keeps up with professional basketball, but he has no regrets about never having played in the National Basketball Association because it never was his goal.
“That wasn’t my vision, that wasn’t my dream,” he said. “My dream was to do what I did. And I have to tell you, I was pretty good at it.”
As for retirement, Lemon said that’s not even on his radar screen. “I find that people who retire get lazy, they’re miserable and sometimes they are hard to live with. And they die early. I prefer not to go that route.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte