The First Legend

by December 16, 2011


When Lemon, who was born in 1932, was 11, he and his friends spent all day every Saturday watching cartoons and movies at the  Bijou Theater downtown, the only theater where blacks were  allowed, and even then just in the balcony. One day they saw a newsreel story about the Harlem Globetrotters. Lemon was captivated. They sang while they laced their shoes. They moved so elegantly. They seemed so happy. They were all so black. Lemon went sprinting down the aisle, down the steps, through the lobby. Someone yelled for him to stop. He kept running, all the way home, “Sweet Georgia Brown” playing on loop in his head.

His family was too poor for a hoop or even a ball, so Lemon made his own. He cut open an onion sack, dumped it out on the kitchen floor and wrapped it around a clothes hanger that he’d twisted into a circle. He nailed that to a tree. Then he took an empty Carnation Evaporated Milk can out of the trash and stood before the tree. He threw the can at the sack like a baseball. It barely hit the tree. The rest of the day, he spent the first few of what would become thousands upon thousands of hours trying to get better.

One day a couple years later, Poppa Jack noticed Lemon in the Boys’ Club struggling to score in pickup games. Poppa Jack pulled Lemon aside and taught him to square his left hip and shoulder to the rim and shoot by extending his right arm straight in line. “Learn that shot,” Poppa Jack said, “and nobody can stop you.”

It was throwing the milk can at the tree all over again. It took Lemon two days to make a shot and three months before he was anywhere near good. Then he switched to his left hand.

He practiced 12 hours a day and sometimes even longer than that. On hook shots, yes, but also on dribbling, passing, faking, everything. His friends would ask him, exasperated, how long he was going to stay out. “Long as the sun stays up,” Lemon would reply. “Or maybe longer.”

“But why?” his friends would ask.

“Gotta be the best,” Lemon would say. More specifically, a  Globetrotter. Ever since the newsreel, Lemon believed he’d join them one day. “I got that vision,” he told the journalist in the lobby. “I saw that with my soul.”

Lemon became a star at the Club and then later at Williston High, averaging 30 points a game his senior year. “He played way above everybody else,” Lockhart remembers. Lemon landed a tryout with the Globetrotters when they were in Raleigh. He actually went into the game in the third quarter, a tryout in front of 15,000 fans, playing alongside Marques Haynes, the Globetrotters’ marquee star of the time. Lemon scored 12 points, wowed everybody with his speed, signed autographs afterward.

In the interview with the kid from the magazine, Lemon talks about growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Wilmington, about seeing things with your soul, about what he became. He says he never tried to become an icon, an American institution who became more important than the Boston Celtics for a spell.

“I had a dream, and I worked at it,” he says, like it’s the simplest thing in the world. “I didn’t think about being the greatest or having an impact outside the game. It’s like most athletes: I wanted to leave the game better than I found it. That’s all.”

He talks about the future. About how now he wants to leave the world better than he’s found it, and about how he’s trying to show people the one thing he believes is truly the most important to have. It’s not wins or trophies or money or women or endorsements. It’s joy.

It’s something heroic all in a new way. To spread joy, he’s had to really know it, and to learn it. Lemon first had to forgive. Others. Life. Himself. God.

He remembers growing up in Brooklyn, and Dad getting stabbed to death, and hurting while riding through the racism-riddled South of the ’50s and ’60s. And he chooses to let it go. Dwelling on it would be useless, he says, because it doesn’t leave the world better.

“You can’t think about how to be perfect,” Lemon says. “Just be the best person you can be. That sums it all up.”

Today, he’s an ordained minister with a Doctorate of Divinity. He runs the Meadowlark Lemon Foundation, headquartered in  Scottsdale, AZ, where he now lives. It reaches out to everyone from at-risk youth to disadvantaged Native Americans. Profits from  Lemon’s All-Stars tours go to area scholarship funds and athletic programs hit by state budget cuts. He’s also written a book, Trust Your Next Shot: A Guide to a Life of Joy. If ever a man knew trust, it’s Lemon—the son of a gambler who went all in on the Globetrotters, spending his childhood chucking cans at trees and heaving ridiculous hook shots.

When the interview ends, the journalist and the legend stand and shake hands. The journalist walks toward the doors, Lemon toward the elevators. The legend passes by a little table on his way out, where some half-dozen or so magazines are scattered and disorganized. He stops.

In a moment Lemon will board the elevator and ride it to his floor and then later he will head to the Schwartz, where he will entertain thousands with his smile and a hook shot as timeless as the sea. And win, of course. Then Lemon will fly home.

But first, he picks up the magazines on the table and shuffles them together and then lays them down in a neat pile, and somehow the whole room seems a little better than when he walked in.

Image 2 courtesy of AP, Image 5 courtesy of NBAE/Getty