Long before athletes tweeted, and in-your-face dunks and tackles could be shared by millions instantly, Meadowlark Lemon became one of the most popular sports personalities in the world.
His dazzling basketball skills and slapstick humor were a key attraction for perhaps the most famous basketball team ever, the Harlem Globetrotters. He became known as the "Clown Prince of Basketball," appearing before presidents and kings and portraying himself in television programs, movies and cartoons.
He died Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz., at age 83. The cause of death was not known, said Brett Meister, a spokesman for the Globetrotters.
Meister said Lemon had been scheduled to fly from his Scottsdale home to Chicago to take part in taping an ESPN special as part of the Globetrotters' 90th anniversary tour.
Lemon spent 24 years with the Globetrotters, joining the team in 1954 and acting as ringleader and showman-in-chief during the team's heyday through the 1960s and '70s.
Lemon and the Trotters toured more than 100 countries, introducing the sport to millions who had never before seen a basketball thrown through a hoop and breaking down cultural and racial barriers along the way.
During Lemon's early days, the all-black Globetrotters' influence was no less in the United States. The team showcased the talents of African American players such as Reece "Goose" Tatum and dribbling wizard Marques Haynes at a time when the fledgling National Basketball Assn. was largely white and lacked the razzle-dazzle of America's first show-time team.
The Globetrotters played exhibition ball, mixing theater and sports. But they were also seriously competitive, especially in the early years. Their victory in 1948 over the Minneapolis Lakers helped put the NBA on the map.
Many have speculated that Lemon might have been a huge NBA star had the league been more welcoming to black players.
By the time Lemon departed the Globetrotters in 1978, the NBA was far more integrated, and a more aggressive athleticism was helping it gain worldwide popularity. Lemon's basketball chops would influence Michael Jordan and other greats.
The Globetrotters' street style was something that helped draw fans to their games.
"I remember my dad taking me to Chicago Stadium and getting to see him [Lemon] and Curly Neal and the whole group," Rivers said. "Then I get back home and I'm sitting in the backyard and I'm doing the ball-spinning-on-my-finger thing."
Famously, Wilt Chamberlain joined the Globetrotters for a year in 1958, fresh out of the University of Kansas. But there was no question of who had the starring role.
Lemon was an entertainer, smack-talking through games, chasing referees with water buckets and teasing spectators with similar buckets of confetti. The teams' usual foils were the mostly white — and hapless — Washington Generals.
But Lemon backed the comedy up with jaw-dropping half-court hook shots and no-look behind-the-back passes.
"Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I've ever seen," Chamberlain said during an interview before his death in 1999. "People would say it would be Dr. J [Julius Erving] or even Michael Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon."
The late Times sports columnist Jim Murray described Lemon as "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."
Meadowlark Lemon was born April 25, 1932, in Wilmington, N.C. His given name was Meadow Lemon lll, according to his website, but various accounts say his birth name was George Meadow Lemon. He legally changed his name to Meadowlark in the 1950s.
He started out playing football at playgrounds. When he was 11, according to his website, he saw a newsreel about the Harlem Globetrotters and was taken by their slick showmanship, which was accompanied by their signature tune "Sweet Georgia Brown."
"The newsreel on this particular Saturday was about a new kind of team — a basketball team known as the Harlem Globetrotters," he wrote in his 2010 memoir, "Trust Your Next Shot: A Guide to a Life of Joy." "The players in the newsreel were unlike any I had ever seen.... They laughed, danced and did ball tricks as they stood in a 'Magic Circle' and passed the ball to a jazzy tune called 'Sweet Georgia Brown.' How they could play!"
He added: "There was one other thing that was different about them, though. They were all black men. The same color as me."
At the time, he wrote that his family was so poor that he practiced by rigging a makeshift hoop with an onion sack and coat hanger. He used an empty Carnation milk can as a ball. After a boy's club opened nearby, he finally got to handle a real basketball, practicing his shots for as many as 18 hours a day, he wrote.
In April 1952, the Globetrotters received a letter from Lemon asking for a tryout, according to the team's Web page. While serving two years in the Army, he played a few games on an overseas tour for the team, and owner Abe Saperstein gave Lemon a chance. He played his first season with one of the Globetrotters' developmental teams, the Kansas City Stars, before joining the Globetrotters in 1954.
Lemon appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and in the animated "Harlem Globetrotters" and "Scooby Doo" cartoon series.
In his later playing years, some derided his on-court antics as buffoonish. But Lemon discounted such criticism.
"We were part of something that America needed at one time," Lemon said of the Globetrotters in a 2010 interview with The Times. "America needed Joe Louis. America needed Arnold Palmer. America needed Sammy Davis Jr., and Louis Armstrong. And America and the world at one time needed people like the Harlem Globetrotters and Meadowlark Lemon."
He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 as well as the International Clown Hall of Fame. An ordained minister, he worked as a motivational speaker until his death.
The Associated Press and Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.