Tuesday, 29 December 2015

MEADOWLARK LEMON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It appears pretty much as written, occasionally things needed to be explained to an audience whose only experience of basketball may well have been the Globetrotters on tour in Britain, or on ITV's World of Sport, when they would pick up broadcasts from ABC. For some reason the Guardian removed his full name: Meadow George Lemon III; although some sources say his name was actually George Meadow Lemon, he said his dad, usually known as 'Peanut' was Meadow George Lemon Jr.

They also cut my observation that the kind of strutting duck walk, the friendly laugh of triumph, the calling out the player he'd just embarrassed -- all of these things, some of which he was castigated for doing, as if playing to a Stepin Fetchitt sort of stereotype, are now everyday behaviour in the once-staid NBA, and of course for basketball players everywhere.

There were many stories I had to leave out: his high school coach arranged his first Globetrotter tryout in Raleigh after Meadowlark bounced back from Florida A&M, that coach had also taught him the hook shot, but at his Hall of Fame induction Meadow thanked 'his best teacher, myself' for that shot! I would have liked to get more info on his first marriage, and the car chase/stabbing that ended it, and his ministry fascinated me when I looked at it via his website; it somehow seemed a natural extension of his Globetrotter career. And I'm almost embarrassed that I didn't mention the made-for-TV movie, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, in which Meadowlark played himself

If you were of a certain (ie, my) age, growing up in the Lemon era, the Globetrotters were central to your basketball existence. Like Meadowlark, my first exposure to them came on film; at summer camp in 1957 or 58 we were shown The Harlem Globetrotters, a 1951 film starring Thomas Gomez as Abe Saperstein and Dorothy Dandridge as the woman Bill Brown wants to drop out of college and play for the Trotters' money so he can marry (even though marrying is against the rules). Globetrotters like Marques Haynes and Goose Tatum played themselves in the movie.

You argued incessantly about whether or not the Trotters could beat NBA teams, in the same way you argued about whether pro wrestlers could beat boxers, or whether Meadowlark or Curly Neal (or later Sweet Lou Dunbar) could play in the NBA (our pre-teen verdict was usually Meadow maybe, Curly probably, Sweet Lou definitely). But this was the era when Wilt had played for the Globetrotters after quitting college and waiting for the NBA draft, or Connie Hawkins played while blackballed from the league for his peripheral status to a point-shaving scandal. Woodie Sauldsberry had played for the Globetrotters and gone to the Philadelphia Warriors and been NBA Rookie of the Year. He bounced around the league then played in 1965 for my home-town New Haven Elms of the Eastern Basketball League; he spent the next two seasons with the Celtics. He could play with anyone. One of the best high school players from Connecticut when I was in grade school was Mike Branch of New Haven's Hillhouse; after leading Fairfield University to national recognition as a 6-3 center/forward, he played in the EBL and for Marques Haynes' Harlem Wizards. We knew he could play with anyone too.

The more important thing was the Globetrotters played the kind of basketball we knew could be played, but couldn't play ourselves, the kind we saw played on urban playgrounds but was generally thought needed to be 'coached out of' players.  Times were changing: when the NBA refs allowed Earl Monroe to palm, or carry, the ball while making his spin move; when dunking was legalised; when the ABA came along and offered a home to Connie Hawkins and many other quality players ignored by the NBA; the Globetrotters suddenly became less important.

I worked with the Globetrotters in 1987, long after Meadowlark was gone. ABC were covering their game in Berlin; the main attraction was Nancy Lieberman playing for the Washington Generals (I met Red Klotz on that trip, and later wrote his obituary for the Daily Telegraph; you can link to that one here). I took the Trotters into East Berlin; we'd been denied working visas, so I hired a tour bus and then, backed up by the chorus of players hooting at the driver, changed the itinerary from our tour of the city to a search for outdoor basketball courts. We found a couple; the guys would get out in their red white and blue warmups and start going through their opening routine. Within minutes we'd have crowds around, the players would be playing with the kids and we would be getting it all on tape. Within a few minutes more, the Vopos would arrive and shut us down. We did this twice before we had enough tape to work with; it was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I ever had with ABC. I can only assume if Meadowlark Lemon had been on board, it would have been even more fun.

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