Meadowlark Lemon in Phoenix in 2011
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Celebrity Fight Night

Meadowlark Lemon, known and loved for his antics on the court as part of the iconic traveling basketball show the Harlem Globetrotters, died Sunday in Arizona at the age of 83, leaving the world with a little less laughter, the New York Times reports

Incredibly talented as an athlete, Lemon joined the team in 1954 after leaving the Army. In a few years, Lemon took over as a showman and was dubbed the “Clown Prince of Basketball” as part of a legacy that spanned more than two decades, until he left the team in 1978. 

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According to the Times, Lemon was introduced to basketball at a local boys club. He said that at the time, according to the report, he was so poor, his hoop was made out of a coat hanger, his basketball net was an onion sack and a Carnation-milk can was his basketball. 

“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” basketball great Wilt Chamberlain said of his old teammate in an interview shortly before his death in 1999. “People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”

And Lemon was serious about his sport. Even though he shined while being the clown on the court, he knew that skill came before everything, as the Washington Post notes.

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“The comedians were the ones who got cut first,” Lemon said back in 1977. “You first had to prove that you could play basketball; then you had to show that you could be funny.”

And playing for the Globetrotters was no walk in the park. Lemon, the Post notes, would play up to 10 games per week before 2 million fans. The level of dedication needed took its toll. In 2003, while being inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame, the Post reports, Lemon, the father of 10, apologized to his family for the Globetrotters’ grueling tour schedule. 

“Man, I’ve had a good run,” he said, recalling the first time he saw the Globetrotters play in a newsreel at a movie theater in North Carolina when he was just 11 years old. “When they got to the basketball court, they seemed to make that ball talk,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s mine; this is for me.’ I was receiving a vision. I was receiving a dream in my heart.”

Read more at the New York Times and the Washington Post