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CROWE'S NEST

Even pushing 80, former Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon is still basketball's Clown Prince

Lemon, who's been described as an American institution and is in both the basketball and clown halls of fame, is still going strong, spreading The Word as an ordained minister and playing 60 to 80 games a year with his own team, the Meadowlark Lemon Harlem All-Stars.

December 05, 2010|Jerry Crowe

Jim Murray once called Meadowlark Lemon an American institution, a description the longtime Harlem Globetrotters star claims mystifies him.

"I don't know what that means," he says.

Oh, but he does.

"We were part of something that America needed at one time," Lemon says of the Globetrotters. "America needed Joe Louis. America needed Arnold Palmer. America needed Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong.

"And America and the world at one time needed people like the Harlem Globetrotters and Meadowlark Lemon."

What he means is, people who could galvanize the masses.

Lemon still does.

He left the Globetrotters more than 30 years ago and reportedly is pushing 80, but the "ageless" Clown Prince of Basketball — he puts his age at "between 118 and 150" — is not retired.

His confetti bucket still pours.

Lemon, a great-grandfather, plays as many as 80 games a year for the Meadowlark Lemon Harlem All-Stars.

"Because I left the Globetrotters, it didn't mean I retired," he says from the Scottsdale, Ariz., home he shares with wife Cynthia and the two youngest of his 10 children. "I left one company but kept on doing the same job for another."

By Lemon's calculations, he is the sporting world's all-time ironman, having played in 16,115 consecutive games — 11,115 with the Globetrotters through 1979 and an additional 5,000 since then with teams known as the Buckateers, the Shooting Stars and, since 1988, his current team, which he owns.

Born Meadow Lemon III — his first name was lengthened after he joined the Globetrotters in 1954 — he says he last sat out a game in 1955, when a pregame meal made him ill.

"I ordered a bowl of goulash," he says of a night in Cologne, Germany, "and the next thing I knew, I was face down in it."

A member of both the basketball and international clown halls of fame, Lemon hasn't sat out a performance since, his durability and work ethic the products of pride and conscientiousness.

"There were families that would save up for a year so they could come out and watch us," says Lemon, an Army grunt stationed in Austria when he first saw the Globetrotters. "And when they came out, they didn't want to hear that you were tired. They didn't want to know that you didn't have lunch that day.

"They wanted you to come out and perform."

He left the Globetrotters, he says, to bring more balance to his life. An ordained minister and Christian evangelist, he awakens daily at 4 a.m. Then, after stretching, shooting baskets and running wind sprints for 2½ hours, he turns to his ministry. As an evangelist, he says, he makes more than 100 appearances a year.

He also finds time to play 60 to 80 games annually, his next scheduled for this weekend in Anchorage, Alaska. That's down from the 350 a year he used to play with the Globetrotters worldwide, but still quite a load for a near-octogenarian.

"I have a passion for it," Lemon says of the game he has played — mostly with a smile on his face — in front of kings, queens, presidents, paupers and popes. "I love basketball."

The feeling is mutual.

The Globetrotters used to prop up the NBA, playing doubleheaders with NBA teams to ensure that the real games wouldn't be played in front of vast rows of empty seats.

The Globetrotters were the draw, Lemon a star attraction.

"Jerry West could steal a ball," Murray wrote in The Times in 1977, "but Meadowlark could make it come out your ear. . . .

"His uniform will one day hang in the Smithsonian right next to Lindbergh's airplane. The Queen of England knows him by face. He has taught the soul handshake to Soviet commissars in the Kremlin. He has made 'Sweet Georgia Brown' almost a national anthem in remote corners of the world."

Lemon still leaves them laughing — and still sinks a decent percentage of his signature half-court hook shots.

He feels a connection to players such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and onetime Globetrotter Wilt Chamberlain, he says, but also to Bill Cosby, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson.

"I'm an athlete," he notes, "but athletes are entertainers and entertainers can be comedians. I'm all of the above."

Not to mention an author too.

His new book, "Trust Your Next SHOT: A Guide to a Life of Joy," is more than a memoir. It's also an inspirational self-help guide, the acronym in the title standing for Spirit, Health, Opportunity and Teamwork.

"There are people out there 40 years my junior who can't do what I do," Lemon says, "even to this day."

Though his focus is on the present and future, he'll happily relive his famous past. Everywhere he turns, it seems, someone is reminding him of a favorite Globetrotters routine.

When he recently visited a cardiologist, Lemon says, the doctor told him he'd seen him play decades earlier — in Greece.

"I'm happy with what we were able to accomplish," Lemon says of his Globetrotters run. "I like what the president called us: 'America's goodwill ambassadors in short pants.'"

Which president?

"All of them," Lemon says.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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