Aidan Smith: Thank goodness for Lemon and his Globetrotters

The world learned about basketball through the Harlem Globetrotters and their megastar, Meadowlark Lemon, right, was the court jester of a hugely important era
The world learned about basketball through the Harlem Globetrotters and their megastar, Meadowlark Lemon, right, was the court jester of a hugely important era
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SPORTS fans today, they don’t know they’re born. They get everything on their telly or however they watch – every game, every decisive moment, every disputed incident, and thanks to the full Sensurround coverage of Rangers vs Hibernian last week, every horrible chant directed at the Hibees’ manager Alan Stubbs.

Then there was a Real Madrid match a couple of days later. It was on in the office so I was only half-watching, but every time I looked up Cristiano Ronaldo seemed to be on the verge of bursting into tears. Spanish TV covered the game like it was one of the country’s soap operas, which I suppose it was: lingering slo-mo shots of the sulking superstar after he’d missed a first-half sitter; close-ups showing his strange orangey foundation seemingly about to crack following his failure from the penalty spot; replay after replay of his anguished gaze towards the heavens.

You half-expected a Bernabeu flunky to enter the field of play wheeling a small table with a telephone so Ronaldo could engage in bad phone-acting, pretending there was someone on the other end, saying yes a lot (“Sim, sim, sim … ”), before learning something to his disadvantage (“Nao!!!”) and fainting.

Do we really need all of this? Everything minutely dissected? I mean, who apart from one’s Moroccan kickboxing “cuddle-buddy” – allegedly – is interested in every frame of the dire drama?

Ironically what was distracting me from the latest Ronaldo mini-series – aside from the presence of Ronaldo himself – was the tribute I was reading to Meadowlark Lemon, a superstar from a different age, when we didn’t call the greats superstars, far less megastars, even though that was assuredly what he was.

To damn him with faint praise for a moment, Lemon, who has died at the age of 83, was a superstar for just being around in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a long time between Olympic Games back then. Blimey, it was a long time between the 4.15 from Haydock racecourse on Saturday’s Grandstand and rugby league from ’unslet or ’uddersfield on Wednesday’s Sportsnight with Coleman.

Televised sport was a treat rather than the wall-to-wall norm. Even if you loomed into shot and only possessed a vague connection to sport, you were welcome. Remember that muscleman who kept winning Opportunity Knocks, flexing his pecs to a happy tune? Loved him.

Remember Freddie and the Dreamers trampolining through their latest release on Crackerjack? Fantastic. And as for It’s a Knockout, all that inter-town custard pie-hurling in foam suits and the attempted retrieval of eggs using a mechanical shovel would do nicely while we waited for the Scottish Football Association to permit live broadcast of our national game. It bloody well had to.

So thank goodness for Lemon and his Harlem Globetrotters. Their brilliant basketball malarkey saved bank holidays from being completely tedious. They were funnier than anything on Knockout – though smug referee Arthur Ellis being flung in the stocks to be doused with water cannon, ruining his prissy blazer, would have been worth seeing – but also supreme athletes.

It’s sad that Lemon will miss the Globetrotters’ 90th anniversary celebrations this year because I don’t remember him ever missing the hoop.

The Globetrotters were competitive before and after, but that 60s-70s interlude when they played it for laughs was a golden time, not just for Lemon and Curly and the rest of the guys, but also for their sport. The world learned about basketball through the Globetrotters, even if it couldn’t quite spin a ball on a fingertip, fire a half-court hook shot or make a blind pass – all trademark tricks of our man.

Every Christmas I’d scan Radio Times hoping to find a Marx Brothers movie. Every bank holiday I’d search for the Globetrotters and a tour game at London’s Wembley Arena. Two terrific comedy troupes and Lemon will surely remain the only member of the International Clown Hall of Fame also elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Initially I was too young to have been let in on the biggest joke: that the Globetrotters were playing stooge teams on these visits. When I found out the matches weren’t properly competitive it was a bit like discovering that – spoiler alert – Santa Claus isn’t real. But the disappointment didn’t last long. There are some football leagues in the world, one of them very well known to us, which function a bit like that.

When the Globetrotters visited Moscow in 1959 – a fascinating time in both the Cold War and the Space Race – Pravda declared they were “not basketball” but the judgment was out of kilter with the wild audience reaction. The Globetrotters did their bit for US-Soviet relations, also black sportsmen.

This was more contentious during the rise of the civil rights movement with Lemon accused of “Tomming for Abe” – acting as an “Uncle Tom” for the Globetrotters’ Jewish founder Abe Saperstein – but when the fledgling National Basketball Association had been largely white and lacking flair, the team showcased black players. “The Globetrotters didn’t show them as stupid,” insisted Jesse Jackson. “On the contrary, they were shown as superior.”

Plus, they always beat the white guys. Once you became aware of the set-ups you sat back and enjoyed the gags: Lemon’s spying on the opposition huddle, his bucket of water which was really confetti, his teasing of the referees. And that lolloping big stride, the permanent wisecracking and the goofy grins were all choreographed to the whistled strains of the Globetrotters’ signature tune, Sweet Georgia Brown.

He could play, too. Surely Lemon would have been a huge NBA star if the league in its early days had been more welcoming to black players. He ended up the court jester of that hugely important era of Cassius Clay, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Bob Beamon and the rest, but don’t doubt his standing in his chosen sport. Wilt Chamberlain, one of the NBA’s greatest, declared: “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen.”

With all that fooling around, Lemon could be said to have worn his greatness lightly. Ronaldo on the other hand – a man who quite possibly has never cracked a joke in his life – wears his like a deep-sea diving suit.

Lemon only came around once or twice a year. Maybe if he’d turned up on my screen as often as Ronaldo does now I’d have got bored of him, too. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.