I've said it before but I'll say it again: physical comedy is everywhere. Not just in silent films and the circus, but in dance and mime, in straight drama and in television commercials, in rodeos and —you can see where I'm going with this— in basketball. Of course I'm referring to the Harlem Globetrotters and to the great Meadowlark Lemon, a five-decade veteran who passed away yesterday at the age of 83.
Lemon was the type of clown who could make fun of a particular skill because he was actually very, very good at it. “I’ll put it this way,” he explained. “When you go to the Ice Capades, you see all these beautiful skaters, and then you see the clown come out on the ice, stumbling and pretending like he can hardly stay up on his skates, just to make you laugh. A lot of times that clown is the best skater of the bunch.”
In fact, Wilt Chamberlain (who started as a Globetrotter) maintained that Meadowlark Lemon was the most awesome basketball player he had ever seen, even ranking him ahead of Michael Jordan. That may be hyperbole, but the basketball skill was indeed formidable and was enhanced by ball manipulation chops that any juggler would be proud of and some silly but slick movement not too far from eccentric dance. I know that when I first saw the Globetrotters as a kid, my reaction was "I didn't even know that was possible." And all of the skills were packaged with creativity and irreverence, so I laughed A LOT. (It also forever lodged "Sweet Georgia Brown" in my brain.)
Much has been written about Lemon and the Harlem Globetrotters, including a sweet guest post to this very blog by comedy animator Jonathan Lyons. Here are a few fun videos, interspersed with excerpts from the NY Times obituary.
This was a time, however, when the Trotters were known not merely for their comedy routines and basketball legerdemain; they were also a formidable competitive team. Their victory over the Minneapolis Lakers [white world champions--jt] in 1948 was instrumental in integrating the National Basketball Association.
It was his charisma and comic bravado that made him perhaps the most famous Globetrotter. For 22 years, until he left the team in 1978, Lemon was the Trotters’ ringmaster, directing their basketball circus from the pivot. He imitated Tatum’s reams [gags--jt], like spying on the opposition’s huddle, and added his own. He chased referees with a bucket and surprised them with a shower of confetti instead of water. He dribbled above his head and walked with exaggerated steps. He mimicked a hitter in the batter’s box and, with teammates, pantomimed a baseball game. And both to torment the opposing team — as time went on, it was often a hired squad of foils — and to amuse the appreciative spectators, he laughed and he teased and he chattered and he smiled; like Tatum, he talked most of the time he was on the court.
“Man, I’ve had a good run,” he said at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, recalling the first time he saw the Globetrotters play, in a newsreel in a movie theater in Wilmington when he was 11.
“When they got to the basketball court, they seemed to make that ball talk,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s mine; this is for me.’ I was receiving a vision. I was receiving a dream in my heart.”
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