I saw a video clip lately where the narrator posed the question, “Who is the greatest basketball player of all-time?” Michael Jordan? Magic Johnson? Larry Bird? Bill Russell? Wilt Chamberlain? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? LeBron James?
Nope. None of those, according to this person. Well, who then?
Meadowlark Lemon. You remember him — the star of the Harlem Globetrotters.
He never won an NBA championship. He played in arenas both large and small, all around the world. He didn’t make millions. He probably won’t be enshrined anywhere as a basketball superstar.
His games were a setup for his unique brand of skills — ball handling, shooting a hook shot from up in the stands, and a great sense of what was truly funny, all married to a legitimate game of basketball.
Meadowlark? Really? Yes, really.
He did more to bring basketball to the average person than anyone alive. He made the game fun and watchable. Ever watch an NBA game start to finish that wasn’t for the NBA championship? Yeah, me neither.
There has never been a basketball star seen by more people. You may have seen Michael Jordan on TV a thousand times but never in person. Millions of people all around the world saw Meadowlark in person. They heard his banter. They watched his brilliance.
Meadowlark was all about love and connecting. None of those folks mentioned earlier could claim that. He loved to pick kids out of the audience and give them the thrill of their life. He made everybody laugh. He made everybody smile.
Nobody pulled for the Generals. You always pulled for the Globetrotters.
The fact that the Globetrotters claimed Harlem as their home was also significant. The impact they had on race relations is difficult to pin down, but what
we know is that everybody, black and white, loved the team from Harlem.
I’ve talked often of not living a life of regrets and have often declared that I have none. My thoughts on the subject are that even those difficulties and trials that we might regret eventually help to make us the person that we become.
But I do have regrets. I would not be human if I didn’t. Maybe my biggest regret has to do with Meadowlark Lemon.
Here’s the story. Quite a few years ago, there was a former NBA player, Joe Ward, that lived here and was going around the country doing 3-on-3 basketball tournaments. At one of those, to be held at Royal Oaks, he had Meadowlark come as a special guest. I was tasked with driving Meadowlark around town — to the basketball tournament, to Bob Gilbert’s radio show, and to speak at a local church.
My dad was a huge Harlem Globetrotters fan and an even bigger Meadowlark Lemon fan. On the way from Royal Oaks to Olympia, where Bob’s radio show was done, I drove within a hundred feet of my dad’s apartment.
I thought hard about dropping in on my dad, Meadowlark in tow. We had the time. But I didn’t.
I guess I just didn’t want to impose on his time. Later, when I mentioned it to Meadowlark, he said I should have, that he would have loved it.
Alas, the window of opportunity had passed.
I will always regret that. I can only imagine the look on my dad’s face when I walk in with easily one of the most recognizable people in all of sports.
During my brief time with Meadowlark, who died in 2015, I found him to be genuine, a man of faith, as friendly off the court as on, and someone who simply loved everybody he came in contact with.
So yeah, greatest basketball player of all time? Meadowlark.