Meadowlark Lemon, a longtime member of the Harlem Globetrotters who became a ubiquitous pop culture presence in the 1970s and ’80s, died Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz. of undisclosed causes. He was 83.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved Meadowlark Lemon. He was 83. #RIPMeadowlark,” the team tweeted.
Dubbed the “Clown Prince of Basketball,” Lemon joined the Globetrotters in 1954 at age 22, appearing in more than 16,000 games in 97 countries until leaving the team in 1978 over a contract dispute. He then formed his own comedy basketball teams — the Meadowlark Lemon’s Bucketeers, the Shooting Stars and Meadowlark Lemon’s Harlem All-Stars — and continued to play into his 70s.
Lemon co-starred with McLean Stevenson in the NBC comedy series “Hello, Larry” in 1979-1980, and he logged guest shots on shows ranging from “Alice,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Here’s Boomer” and “Scooby Doo,” to numerous talk shows and Globetrotters TV specials. He was also in demand for commercials, appearing in blurbs for such blue-chip brands as Ford Motor Co., Burger King, Pepsi, Sears, Dr. Pepper, Tropicana and the U.S. Postal Service, among many others.
On the big screen he costarred in the 1979 comedy “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” about a hapless basketball team, and appeared in 1981’s “Modern Romance.” In his later years Lemon became an ordained minister and had a regular series on Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Lemon was known for his outreach to youth through schools and other organizations, always promoting a message of clean living and hard work as the keys to success. He also worked regularly as a motivational speaker and was the author of the 2012 book “Trust Your Next Shot: A Guide to a Life of Joy.”
Lemon was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 and was one of only five Globetrotters to have their numbers retired.
According Lemon’s official website, he was born Meadow Lemon III in Wilmington, N.C., and in the 1950s legally changed his name to Meadowlark. ESPN and other sources cite his name at birth as George Meadow Lemon.
At the age of 11, he saw a newsreel of the Harlem Globetrotters and set his sights on joining the team. He spent two years in the military before becoming a Globetrotter.
On the court, Lemon was known for his long hook shots, no-look behind-the-back passes and clownish antics, which included surprising fans with buckets of confetti.
“For a generation of fans, the name Meadowlark Lemon was synonymous with the Harlem Globetrotters,” said Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider. “He was an incredible entertainer and brought happiness and lifelong memories to millions around the world. We have lost a great ambassador of the game.”
Lemon is survived by his wife, Cynthia, and 10 children.