George “Meadowlark” Lemon, the legendary face and main attraction of the timeless and iconic Harlem Globetrotters for 24 years, died Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz, where he lived, his wife confirmed. He was 83.
Lemon, who joined the Globetrotters at age 22 in 1954, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 and stayed with the traveling show until 1978. He is one of only five Globetrotters to have their numbers retired since the team was founded in Chicago in the 1920s.
“For a generation of fans, the name Meadowlark Lemon was synonymous with the Harlem Globetrotters,” said Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider, according to ESPN. “He was an incredible entertainer and brought happiness and lifelong memories to millions around the world. We have lost a great ambassador of the game.”
Lemon became such a cultural phenomenon, he appeared on several television shows and specials, including “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine”; an animated version of Lemon also appeared on “The Harlem Globetrotters” cartoon series and on episodes of “Scooby Doo.”
He and Julius “Dr. J.” Erving, another basketball revolutionary but who played in the NBA, also starred together in the campy but popular movie “The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh.”
Lemon became “an American institution like the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty” whose “uniform will one day hang in the Smithsonian right next to Lindbergh’s airplane,” the Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray once described him.
According to his website, Lemon played in 16,000 games, an astonishing claim — it breaks down to more than 300 games a year for 50 years — and in 100 countries, a remarkable athletic feat.
Lemon thrilled audiences with his long hook shots, ballhandling skills and ability to make fans laugh with the Globetrotters’ bag of tricks — including throwing buckets of confetti on unsuspecting fans as Lemon chased the referee with what was thought to be water.