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Remembering the ‘Clown Prince’

It’s somewhere in one of a half-dozen trunks I haven’t unpacked since moving back to Bertie County.

It’s probably faded by now, but maybe not since it was made out of a cheap polyester fabric.

What is it? A jersey I wore as a ‘player’ for the Washington Americans during the Harlem Globetrotters’ winter tour that stopped in Wilmington back in 1993. The ‘Trotters had asked some of the local sports press in town to take the court as ‘stooges’, or fall-guys for their famous comedy routine, disguised as basketball, and I was gullible – or, honored – enough to volunteer.

Why am I bringing this up? It’s because George ‘Meadowlark’ Lemon passed away Sunday at the age of 83. Yes, Meadowlark was a nickname he got back in high school because girls said he was as flirtatious as, well, a meadowlark.

That ’93 tour was during Meadowlark’s return to the Globetrotters and for one night they were stopping at a gym in his hometown. Lemon was doing what he did best: thrilling and cracking up the crowd with the on-court antics that made him a legend many times over. He was an entertainer who delighted everyone from popes, to kings and queens, presidents and even regular basketball fans in almost 100 countries around the globe. He entertained the young, and the young-at-heart.

That night I didn’t get my shorts pulled down around my ankles or a bucket of confetti tossed in my face, afraid it would be cold water. I just tried my best to remain a pawn in Meadowlark’s road-show. On this night he dipsy-doodled, made the refs chase him around the gym, threw a bucket of real water on one lady, and even made what looked like some impossible basketball shots – or two. He could have patented that hook-shot.

Five minutes into the ‘game’ that night I took myself out of the lineup, had a seat on the bench, and just sat back and absorbed the whole experience. It wasn’t about me; it wasn’t even about Meadowlark, it was about getting a crowd of over 2,000 to laugh it up at those famous on-court antics and go home with smiles on our faces as we recalled one night of fun.

Meadowlark made a lot of trips back to his hometown. In 2006 he was inducted into not one, but two of the city’s Halls of Fame, and he came home for both ceremonies. I made it back from Bertie County for one of them, was thrilled he remembered me, and felt just as thrilled to be in his presence with so many fans clamoring for autographs and photos. Mind you, this was long before ‘selfies’ became the rage.

Meadowlark was inducted along with another Wilmington sports institution: football Hall-of-Famer: Christian Adolph “Sonny” Jurgensen. My favorite memory of that early spring weekend was listening to the two of them swap stories of how Sonny’s New Hanover High team would watch over the fence on 12th Street as Meadowlark and his Williston High football teammates – yes, Lemon played football – would be working out, and the Williston team did the same thing. The two teams – one black, one white – practiced right across from one another separated by a fence. That fence isn’t there anymore and 50 years later here were two Wilmington sports legends joking about it and more of their teen years in the Port City.

Meadowlark went from Williston to college at Florida A&M, to the Army, to a tryout with the Globetrotters. The rest, yes, is history. Playing and entertaining into his 70’s he retired to Arizona and became an evangelist; something he was just as skilled at as basketball.

Despite his flair for finding the spotlight, Meadowlark was always concerned about using his platform – whether it was basketball, comedy or the pulpit – for the greater good.

“I can’t take the credit for it. It is a God-given gift,” he once said. “I am truly one of the blessed people and I know it. God has given me a great run. I don’t know what else to say about it.”

I’m glad now I kept that jersey.

Hey, Meadow? Think you can teach St. Peter that hook-shot?

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.