WASHINGTON (AFP) - Meadowlark Lemon, the lithe showman, jester and trick-shot genius who entertained audiences worldwide as the heart and soul of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, has died at age 83, the team announced Monday.
Lemon, who played 24 years with the Globetrotters during the height of their fame, was a master of razzle-dazzle and good-natured crowd-pleasing, and his legendary hook shots from half court, no-look passes, and buckets of confetti showered on referees became marquee features of the travelling sports show.
Nicknamed the "clown prince of basketball", Lemon was renowned for his comedy routines. But the squad had also been a thriving professional team, once winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament before the rise of the National Basketball Association.
Lemon's showmanship was such that he eclipsed the popularity of a star recruit straight out of college - Wilt Chamberlain - when the latter joined the team for a season before entering the NBA.
"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," Globetrotters chief executive Kurt Schneider said in a statement.
Others pointed to the Trotters' diplomatic and cultural impact abroad. The team played several games in Moscow during the Cold War and met with premier Nikita Khrushchev, performed in front of the pope in Rome, and delighted millions of fans in more than 100 countries.The constant on-court buffoonery - and the belief that the Globetrotters, historically an African-American team, were conducting a sort of minstrel revival - brought criticism during the civil rights era, when some saw the team's actions as demeaning.
Lemon retired from the team in 1978. In his later years, he served as a minister and motivational speaker.