Meadowlark Lemon, who died last Sunday at 83, may have been the most beloved basketball player of all time. Certainly he holds the record for venues visited in uniform. The Harlem Globetrotters, the team on which Lemon was featured for two-and-a-half decades, played in over 100 countries.
Among Lemon’s many, many teammates was one Curley “Boo” Johnson.
He just wanted to be around people, making people happy. That was Meadowlark Lemon.Lou Dunbar, former Globetrotter teammate
"I think the earliest picture I have with him would be when I was 8-years-old in the locker room," Johnson says.
Johnson’s father had been a Globetrotter. When the team was on the road, they often stopped at his home for dinner. Curley “Boo” Johnson, once a ball boy, graduated to full-fledged ‘Trotter in 1988.
After he’d been with the team for a few years, Johnson learned that Meadowlark, who’d been playing with a team of his own for several years, would be rejoining the Globetrotters.
"I’ll never forget, we were in Omaha, Nebraska. I had just got done doing a clinic for the Globetrotters. And as soon as I finished the clinic, my coach walked up to me and said, 'Hey, they’re bringing Meadowlark out here.' I was, like, 'Get out of here. Ain’t no way.' I couldn’t believe it. I was like, 'You’re joking. There’s no way.' And I was excited. I was excited. 'You mean to tell me I’m going to play with Meadowlark? Wow.'"
Johnson says it was a learning experience like no other.
"His passes. He would not look at you. People today would say, 'Oh, that’s like Magic Johnson.' No. Meadowlark Lemon did not have to look at you to give you the ball. He’ll look at you and then he will throw the ball where you should be. OK? And he gripped the ball like it was a grapefruit. He had huge hands for a guy 6-foot-3.”
He passed brilliantly and regularly sank hook shots from half-court, but Meadowlark Lemon’s forte was comedy. Some derided his performance as a minstrel show, but for vast and appreciative audiences around the world, Meadowlark’s tricks and gimmicks were a pure delight. He took foul shots with a basketball that he’d attached to his hand with a big rubber band, so that the ball never got to the rim. It just came back to him. He dumped buckets of confetti on fans sitting courtside. He tucked the basketball under the referee’s shirt and then, all wide-eyed innocence, looked everywhere for it. But at the dinner table, as Curley “Boo” Johnson recalls, you’d not have known he was the greatest showman in his game.
"He was soft-spoken," Johnson says. "It was almost like he was Clark Kent as opposed to the Superman that he was on the court."
Superman may be an overstatement. But maybe not. “Sweet” Lou Dunbar, a former teammate of Lemon’s, now the Director of Player Personnel for the Globetrotters, remembers when Meadowlark’s star shone most brightly.
"When you saw the Wide World of Sports," says Dunbar, "you saw Meadowlark Lemon shooting that hook shot, running and taking the lady’s purse. That’s who you saw. He was the heart and soul of the Harlem Globetrotters. Oh, yeah. Definitely. He’s right there at the top of the Christmas tree, baby."
Meadowlark Lemon played basketball into his '60s. When he stopped, he took up preaching. He traveled to do it, just as he’d traveled to play ball. And according to Lou Dunbar, that wasn’t the only thing Lemon’s second career had in common with his first.
"He stopped putting smiles on people’s faces to start touching people’s hearts in the pulpit," Dunbar says. "So that was just him. He just wanted to be around people, making people happy. That was Meadowlark Lemon."
That was Meadowlark Lemon. As Curly “Boo” Johnson recalled, when Meadowlark played, he didn’t want anyone to leave the building feeling like they’d been shortchanged. Nobody who ever witnessed his wizardry and his comic show could doubt his success in that regard.
And we learned just this week that he’d done a little singing, too.
This segment aired on January 2, 2016.