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Scaletta: When I Met Meadowlark Lemon

Lemon offers a pretzel to the referee; he was 'the most awesome, incredible, sensational player I've ever seen,' said Wilt Chamberlain AP
AP Photo

I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. My coming of age years were in that timeframe that consisted of Gerald Ford becoming the first unelected President, Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis, and the election of Ronald Reagan. The NBA superstar of the time was Julius Erving, a.k.a. Dr. J. Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw were duking it out for the Super Bowl every year. And the Harlem Globetrotters were superheroes.

There was a TV series about them in the early ’70s, but my brothers and I were still watching it at the end of the decade. The greatest Scooby Doos of all-time were the ones where the meddling kids met the team. There was something about being a preteen and seeing the Globetrotters at the time. In our childlike minds, the Globetrotters were too good for the NBA; it’d be cheating to have them in it.

All the tricks and shenanigans just made it more fun. They loved to taunt you with thinking they might not win. But everyone knew, late in the game, the Washington Generals were gonna lose. And they always did. Well, almost always.

And then they came calling to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I was living at the time, and where I was a proud member of the Webelos. And, as luck would have it, me and my little troop were tasked with helping out with the game. As any erstwhile fan of the Globetrotters knew, the games involved antics.

It. Was. A. Blast.

Maybe it was being a kid who could still believe in superheroes. Maybe it was just that we were still at that age where you’re still too young to have any real problems but old enough to remember it. Maybe it was the friendships forged through camping trips camped, Pinewood Derbys raced, pancake breakfasts eaten and so on. But we were close friends, we were in the most awesome spot on earth in the greatest day in the history of Grand Forks, and we had front row seats to it all.

We laughed too hard and ate too much, and it was entirely awesome. It was one of those signature events of my childhood where I think, “When was I ever really, genuinely, happy as a child?” That’s one of the days I land on. And I haven’t even touched on the best part:

Meadowlark Lemon wasn’t a Globetrotter. He was the Globetrotter. He was the “Clown Prince” of basketball. He’s the one who made you laugh the hardest and had the most fun doing so. He was also the perpetrator the famous gag for which they were known. He was the one we were there to clean up after.

The deal was, he’d chase around a ref with a bucket of water, splashing him. Then he’d pick up another bucket which he would throw at the ref only to miss and hit the fans. But this one was filled with confetti. Of course, we were all supposed to think there was water in it, but we knew better. And of course, that didn’t stop the adulating fans from pretending they didn’t.

Our job was to clean up the mess that created. When it happened, my little Webelos buddies and I scurried out there and dried up the splashed water, then swept up the scattered confetti. Then we came back to the courtside and watched the duration of the game, floorside.

That was the gag, by the superhero on the team of superheroes. It was Meadowlark at his finest, doing what he did the best: Making kids happy.

And I got to be a part of it.

But for us, the greatest moment came after the game had ended and Meadowlark Lemon — the Meadowlark Lemon — came over to us water-wiping Webelos to shake our hands and thank us for cleaning up his mess.

He was thanking us! Swoon! 

And I remember putting my tiny (by comparison) little 11-year-old hand into that massive mitt of his, thinking that this was the greatest thing ever in the whole history of the world. And I didn’t even care that I was too old to be awed by such things. It was Meadowlark Lemon!

It was the day I met the greatest Globetrotter of them all. And it was a joyous one.

So when I heard about his passing today, it might have made me tear up a bit, but not from sorrow; it was from gratitude. Thank you, Meadowlark, from me and the countless other children you brought joy to. May you rest in the peace of their laughter.

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