January 27, 2016
How many times over the years did I hear my associates standing outside my office door start whistling their version of Brother Bones’ “Sweet Georgia Brown”? More than I can remember! It meant only one thing … next, I was soon to hear the familiar cackling laughter of one of my favorite clients and a friend.
In fact, although my relationship was personal, millions of families and children of all ages considered him their friend. Then, bigger than life, he would plop his gangling frame into the only chair in my office that was well worn and without springs… and without fail, he would always admonish me to fix the darn thing. Religiously, I would promise to get it done. I never did! And each time he visited…that plop in seat/ complaint was part of our ritual… sort of a “bonding”.
For more than 24 seasons, he was America’s foremost Goodwill Ambassador to the world. He never went to a school of diplomacy… he was not a government official, nor was he a member of any political administration, but he knew what the right thing was to do every time he met someone new. Meadowlark Lemon passed away this month and the world is sadder for it. Millions of people whom he entertained by using a Basketball, all felt as if they knew him. He never failed to leave everyone who saw him and the Harlem Globetrotters perform whether on the deck of an Aircraft Carrier where only the men serving were the audience… to the cavernous Houston Astrodome where 50,000 filled the seats … or before a private audience in Moscow. Here the spectators were Premier Nikita Khruschev and the ruling Politburo’s inner circle… he made friends for the United States. He was our Secretary of State without portfolio. On one of our many visits, he had just come back from China. He brought me the gift of a stone from the Great Wall where ABCTV had just finished filming a Globetrotter Special. The TV Special included doing their famous opening routine to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown” on the wall . I am sure it was the first time, the tune reached China which was still an enigma to the West. President Nixon hadn’t yet opened up China through his famed Ping Pong Diplomacy. The Globetrotter visits to Moscow and China, with the blessing of our State Department, did a great deal to help ease tensions that were prevalent at the time. As a member of the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness at the time, I had a front row seat to History. President Nixon used both Basketball (The Globetrotters) and our National Table Tennis Team to help normalize United States relations with both Communist countries. Meadowlark was the Pied Piper. Everywhere he went massive crowds of people followed him. He once complained to me that he could not go the men’s room without being followed. With all the stress in today’s precarious world, a little of the Meadowlark humor could go a long way. When I was a kid in Boston, Earle, myself, Arnie and Gene could not wait for the Globetrotters’ annual visit to the Garden.
The fledgling NBA, which was struggling to exist in those days, would hire the ‘Trotters” to be the main event in order to fill the stands. The Trotters with Goose Tatum as their stellar performer would never disappoint.
But it wasn’t until the 70’s, with Meadowlark Lemon in the role that “Goose” once played, that the Harlem Globetrotters became a household name. He not only expanded the Basketball skill level, but broadened the comedy with more hilarious skits. Part of his charm and success was incorporating many youngsters from the audience into individual skits.
He lived up to the show business adage. “Leave them wanting more”.
The Globetrotters were founded in 1927 by Abe Saperstein and played most of their games in the Savoy Ballroom. It was on the South Side of Chicago where most of the players, all black, had grown up. They played exhibitions against all comers. They were simply called the Savoy Big Five. With Saperstein promoting, they became the Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein believed that since Harlem was associated with Black Life in America at the time and by adding an out-of- Chicago name to the team, it created more mystery. But make no bones about it they were a Basketball team first… and at the time there were no Blacks playing in the NBA. It actually took four decades before the Harlem Globetrotters would actually play a game in Harlem. They expanded their Basketball repertoire to include showmanship… Thus, the signature of what they had to offer evolved…” an exhibition basketball team that combined athleticism, theater and comedy”.
Meadowlark embodied all of these qualities. In 24 seasons, he played in more than 7500 consecutive games before popes, kings, queens, presidents, and dictators in over 100 countries. He is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The Trotters were good! At one time, they had a winning streak of 2,495 straight until 1971 when they lost in triple overtime. They would go on to win an alleged 8,829 Victories. In Vienna, Austria on September 12,1995, they lost to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s All-Stars. To date, they have played over 20,000 games in 120 countries. Wilt Chamberlain when asked who he considered the greatest ballplayer of all time, named Meadow. As for Michael Jordan… He thought of Meadow as one of his boyhood idols!
As for Shelly Saltman, I once beat Meadow in a game of 21!