Basketball

Wilmington ponders renaming bridge for Meadowlark Lemon

In this Sept. 5, 2003, file photo, Basketball Hall of Fame CEO John Doleva, left, presents a Hall of Fame jacket to inductee Meadowlark Lemon, of the Harlem Globetrotters, at the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In this Sept. 5, 2003, file photo, Basketball Hall of Fame CEO John Doleva, left, presents a Hall of Fame jacket to inductee Meadowlark Lemon, of the Harlem Globetrotters, at the Basketball Hall of Fame. AP

A Wilmington bridge might soon be renamed for the “Clown Prince of Basketball.”

Wilmington City Council will consider a resolution Tuesday to rename the North Third Street Bridge after Wilmington native Meadow Lemon III, better known as “Meadowlark” Lemon.

“The city has recognized all our great athletes,” said Mayor Bill Saffo. “Meadowlark Lemon was an ambassador for goodwill for years, traveling to a hundred countries.”

Saffo noted that the bridge stands near where Lemon grew up in the city’s Northside. Lemon retained his ties to his hometown, the mayor added, returning to participate in a local fundraiser shortly before his death in 2015.

Lemon played for the Harlem Globetrotters from 1955 to 1980, wearing Number 36. (He later said there was no particular significance to the number.)

After playing for the Bucketeers, the Shooting Stars and Meadowlark Lemon’s Harlem All-Stars in the 1980s, Lemon returned to the Globetrotters, playing 50 games in 1994.

In all, Lemon played more than 16,000 games with the renowned exhibition team. He was famed for his hi-jinks, such as pretending to listen in on opponents’ huddles or dousing referees with a bucket of water. (Sometimes, he would threaten to douse audience members – with a bucket that turned out to be filled with confetti.)

Lemon’s comedy sometimes overshadowed his remarkable basketball skills, from sinking half-court hook shots to intricate behind-the-back passes.

Born April 25, 1932, in South Carolina, Lemon moved with his family to a home on North Sixth Street when he was 6. He graduated from Williston Industrial School in 1952. He briefly attended Florida A&M and served two years in the U.S. Army.

In his 1987 memoir, “Meadowlark” (written with “Left Behind” co-author Jerry B. Jenkins), Lemon recalled first seeing the Globetrotters in a newsreel at the all-black Ritz Theater in the 1940s. He began shooting with an evaporated milk can as a ball, a bent coat hanger as a rim and an onion sack nailed to a tree as a basket.

According to former StarNews reporter Eric Detweiler, Lemon’s skills were honed at the local boys’ club, where coach Earl “Pappa Jack” Jackson drilled him on the hook shot.

In his heyday, Lemon appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “What’s My Line?” and a number of other TV shows. In the 1970s, he was depicted in an animated Saturday morning TV series.

Fans often speculated how well Lemon might have done playing in the NBA. Wilt Chamberlain told the Associated Press in 1999 that Lemon was the best player of all time, while Michael Jordan described him as a “national treasure” and a personal inspiration.

In the words of the proposed resolution, “Meadowlark Lemon’s ambassadorial deeds stretched far beyond the basketball court and the end of his career to include frequent returns to his hometown to share with the youth of the community his message of success and hope.”

In later years, Lemon settled in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he served as an evangelist and motivational speaker, operating Meadowlark Lemon Ministries and a co-ed sports camp. He died in Scottsdale on Dec. 27, 2015.

Lemon was admitted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted into Wilmington’s Walk of Fame in 2006 and the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame. A basketball scholarship at Cape Fear Community College is named for him, but apparently the bridge would be the first local landmark to bear his name. The resolution provides for signs on either side of the bridge, bearing Lemon’s name.

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