The Good Ol’ Days: Meadowlark in Minot
Meadow Lemon III passed away recently, age 83. He was better known as “Meadowlark” Lemon and, for nearly a quarter century, was also known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball” when he played with the legendary Harlem Globetrotters. It is estimated that he played in 16,000 games, most of them one-night stands, in over 100 countries.
The Globetrotters were already quite famous, thanks to television, when they came through the Upper Midwest on a series of one-night appearances in the early 60’s. When it was announced that they would appear in Minot, my dad took a carload of us up to Minot Municipal Auditorium, which was packed for the occasion. Many of us had never seen people of color play sports, even on television, and we were dazzled by the skill and brashness of these so-called “Court Jesters”.
Mr. Lemon was the undoubted star of the show and kept up a continual patter (we would call it ‘talking smack’ today) and toyed with the obligatory opponent, the hapless Washington Generals. He would joke around with the refs and sometimes would get right behind one and “shadow walk”, step-for-step, while the official marched toward the free throw line. On other occasions he would toss up a hook shot “from downtown” and it would often swish through the hoop, barely rustling the net.
Sometimes, in the midst of an offensive play, the Globetrotters would break into a choreographed routine of ball-hawking, behind-the-back passes and jive-talking, finally punctuated with a high-flying dunk by one of their giant second- or third-bananas. One popular skit had Meadowlark picking up a bucket that we thought contained water and chasing someone all over the court with it. When he tossed the bucket’s contents at the intended target, the crowd would wince and then howl with relief when only confetti rained on them. Once in a blue moon, there would actually be water in the bucket, as I observed on the Globetrotters’ second visit to the Magic City a few years later. I think the moon may have been blue that night.
In their first appearance, the Globetrotters brought along the legendary Cab Calloway, who sang his signature song “Minnie the Moocher” during a 20-minute halftime performance, accompanied by his band. Mr. Calloway had been famous since the 1930s, but because of the separate-but-equal nature of much of American society back then, his music was not played with regularity on radio. When he would sort of yodel the chorus “Hi de hi de hi de ho”, his band would join in and try to duplicate the way he sang it. We, too, were encouraged to sing along. Calloway had performed that song tens of thousands of times and I would guess that his “hi de ho’s” were different each time.
Calloway’s career was briefly resurrected thanks to the first Blues Brothers movie in 1980. When he performed that night in Minot, he wore a trademark “zoot suit” with wide lapels and baggy trousers narrow at the ankle. Although in his mid-fifties by that time, he had all the energy and excitement of a man decades younger. I had the feeling that he was giving the same genuine performance for us NoDak folks that he would have done for a king or a queen.
The Globetrotters have also performed for royalty and we cheered them on with regal enthusiasm that first night. Such was our support that they came back a few years later, this time bringing a young player named Connie Hawkins. Hawkins was 6-9 and one of the most athletically-gifted big men I’ve ever seen. He could jump so high that he could easily touch the top of the backboard. While a freshman at Iowa, it was mistakenly thought that he had been involved in a point-shaving scandal and he had been kicked out of college ball. The NBA wouldn’t touch him, despite his obvious playing skills, so he found a spot on a team in the lowly American Basketball League, which folded after one year. He spent the next three years with the Globetrotters and then joined the fledgling American Basketball Association. He eventually played in the NBA and was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. The NBA’s mistake was our gain on the night of that second ‘Trotter appearance in Minot.
My father was a busy man, but never too busy to take a bunch of us to see the Globetrotters. He had played ball in high school (1930-33), when a typical final score would be 13-11. He was called a “long-shot artist” by the Tribune. When his older brother Aaron played for RHS, they played in a gym that became an apartment house (across the street from the Memorial Hall) and there were posts in the middle of the court (hence the “post play”) and also a stove in the very middle. So if a player “got hot” it had a different meaning back then. Go Panthers! Hi de hi de hi de hohhhh!
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