Basketball's 'Clown Prince' Dead at 83

Meadowlark Lemon played with the Harlem Globetrotters
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 28, 2015 8:13 AM CST

Probably the most well-known of the Harlem Globetrotters has died at age 83. Meadowlark Lemon died Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz., his wife, Cynthia, confirmed, per the New York Times. Referred to as the "Clown Prince of Basketball," Lemon played for the famous exhibition team for more than 26 seasons, clocking a staggering 16,000-plus career games and becoming renowned for his famous hook shot. But the revered showman wasn't all for show: He was also a highly respected player, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 and noted for being a major part of basketball right as the NBA started its ascent, per the Times. Before he died in 1999, ex-teammate Wilt Chamberlain said in a TV interview that "Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I've ever seen."

Not bad for a kid who, per the Chicago Tribune, was "a skinny boy with a funny name 'not at the top of anyone's priority list,'" as he himself once put it. His first basketball: an empty evaporated-milk carton; his first basket: an onion sack attached to a wire hanger nailed to a tree. Everything changed when Lemon saw a Globetrotters newsreel in the 1940s, he once wrote, per the Tribune, noting they were all "the same color as me." His life wasn't trouble-free—his first wife was arrested for stabbing him in 1978, per the Tribune—but his popularity endured. Described by late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray as "an American institution like the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty," per the New York Times, he found fame off the court, including in a made-for-TV Gilligan's Island movie and in Burger King and Charmin commercials. (More obituary stories.)

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