Long before it was common for basketball players to be known worldwide or Michael Jordan had made his mark in Wilmington, NC, Meadowlark Lemon used his platform as the Harlem Globetrotter’s “Clown Prince of Basketball” to reach fans of all ages and races.
by Brandon Sneed
The man walks into the Wilmington Hilton lobby wearing navy blue warmups. On the jacket: “The Harlem All-Stars.” He passes a small table covered with magazines and papers and approaches another, where a journalist from a basketball magazine sits. The journalist is in his early 20s and thinks the man is looking at him like, Who is this kid that’s about to interview me? But that’s not what the man says. Instead he stretches out his huge right hand, smiles a huge smile and says, “Hey there, son, Meadowlark Lemon.”
The kid laughs and says, “Yeah, I know, it’s incredible to meet you.”
Every couple of years, he comes back here, to Wilmington, NC. Last night he played basketball downtown at Cape Fear Community College’s Schwartz Center. It was packed and a little musty and Lemon played against grown men young enough to be his grandsons.
He still looked good out there. Sure, it’s not a few decades ago; he moved slower and wore a brace on his right knee. But he’ll tell you that he’s not getting old, just old-er. His legs still rippled, muscular. He still knew the ball like it was part of his soul. He still had a small afro, and his socks and shoes were still white. So were his teeth, and that’s good, because he still always smiles.
He was still totally Meadowlark.
It was a small gym. The bleachers ran right beside the court. Close to the legend as they’d ever been, fathers—grown men—smiled like giddy children and pointed open-mouthed and gushed to their sons, acting just like those kids would if they saw superstars LeBron James or Kobe Bryant this close.
For a time, he was the most recognizable face in the game, the Harlem Globetrotter’s “Clown Prince,” who brought basketball into the modern era. He played everywhere from Wilmington to Madison Square Garden, in more than 100 countries, in front of all types of people, from the Pope to the president. Sportswriter Jim Murray wrote that Lemon “did more for basketball than 10 seasons of the Boston Celtics” and that he was “an American institution whose uniform should hang alongside the Spirit of St. Louis and the Gemini Space Capsule in the halls of the Smithsonian Institute.” In 2000, the Basketball Hall of Fame gave Lemon its John Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2003, he was fully inducted into the Hall.
But right now, here in Wilmington, a humble beach town in the southeastern corner of North Carolina, Lemon is just a couple miles from where it all began, where he was once just an 11-year-old boy with nothing more than a dream and an onion sack for a basketball net.
“You remember that?” the journalist asks.
Lemon smiles again.
Just a few blocks over from Schwartz is Bladen Street. The road is bumpy, made of bricks. The car pulls up beside a yellow house with green trim, two stories, at 518 Bladen. “This is it,” the man born Meadow Lemon says, smiling. “Right here.” It’s a clear day and the sun shows starkly what “it” is.
The paint is peeling and cracked and fading. White panel sections, likely replacement pieces after storm damage, cover portions here and there, and while they look new-er, they don’t look new. The brown roof is covered in dirty shingles. Air conditioners poke out of windows, and one on the house’s west side is about to fall. Most of the other homes on the block look no better. The yards are overgrown and unkempt. A couple houses had rusted “For Sale” signs staked out front.
“We used to fight on this corner right here,” Lemon laughs, pointing at the sidewalk corner of Bladen and Sixth. “We used to get tied up into hoodlums, man. Oh, man. We’d be hittin’ each other…” And he’s gone, his mind six decades deep, back when he was a scrawny, lanky kid wrestling on the sidewalks. He grew up in that house.
They called this area Brooklyn. It’s a place of dreaming but nothing more, where hope is a vapor in storms of drugs and gambling and homes broken by them. Lemon remembers it being dangerous; there were shootings almost every day. His father, Peanut, a renowned gambler in the area, carried a switchblade in his pocket, held half open with a matchstick. Local legend claimed he could slash your throat before you could blink.
Lemon is in town this time with his Harlem All-Stars to play some Wilmington locals. Game one was against members of the local government. Game two, sailors from the USS Gravely, a naval ship soon to be commissioned in Wilmington.
But for now, he’s just a guy in a car on his way to see some old friends.
Lemon’s car rolls down a couple blocks to the Community Boys’ Club. Its parking lot is just a circle of gravel no more than 50 feet in diameter, bordered by a fence, Boys’ Club vans and a dumpster. The building is faded red brick, trimmed by equally faded baby blue. It’s been rebuilt since he was a boy, but this is where Meadowlark Lemon found his way.
Lemon exits the car and walks through the double doors into the lobby, hanging a left. He always visits when he’s in town, and if there’s time, he’ll give the kids a free basketball clinic, too.
Smiling—of course—he walks into the office of a large man named Wayne Lofton, the club director. Lofton is behind his desk; sitting in a chair by the door is a skinny man wearing glasses named Earl Jackson Jr. They’re much younger than Lemon, in their 50s. They know him because he knew their fathers, especially Poppa Jack, Earl’s father. They call Earl “Skip”; he is Lemon’s godson. Poppa Jack is the man who taught Lemon his hook shot, which Lemon can still make about 70 percent of the time, and which became, for a time, the most famous shot in the world.
They embrace, exchange jubilant greetings and catch up. Later, Lemon, Skip and Wayne go to dinner with Joe Harris II and William Lockhart at Midtown Seafood Restaurant. They eat big, then go to one of their houses and laugh long into the night.
It means so much to these men, their time with Lemon. Later, the same journalist who interviewed Lemon in the lobby will ask them about the visit. Lofton will say, “Whenever he’s gone, wherever he’s gone, he never lost touch with his friends here. He never forgot where he came from.” Lockhart, who grew up with Lemon at the Boys’ Club, agrees: “A lot of guys have gone off and become known, and they don’t want to be known as from Wilmington. Meadow never denied where he lived or who he grew up with.”
Plenty of athletes became stars in Brooklyn, and Wilmington has produced some great names in sports, including Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest of all. But it started with Lemon. “Meadow became like a hero to us,” Skip says. “Because he was the first real big name that surfaced in this community, as far as kids who left here, gone and made it. He was the watermark, the symbol. He was the first to really break away.”
Young Lemon’s life was fractured from the start, and he spent most of his time seeking something whole. He grew up living with his uncle. He took the train to Harlem in the summers to be with his mom. Later, in a tragic irony, his father was stabbed to death while Lemon was serving in the Army. Even after Lemon made it big with the Globetrotters, he played an average of 325 games a year, taking him away from his family and costing him his first marriage.
“It was hard, man,” he recalls. “You think you know everything, then you find out you know nothing.”
So yeah, Lemon’s life hasn’t always been all smiles. That he somehow worked his way free from Brooklyn and its poverty, and on top of that became a global basketball icon, makes him something like the quintessential American dream, like a character Hollywood would create. Which is sort of fitting, actually, because it all started in a movie theater.