Keeping his Eyes on the Prize

Originally appeared in The Post-Star, Sunday, April 14, 2002.

Meadowlark Lemon remembers his family having "nothing." When he was 11 and wanted to learn how to play basketball, he said he fashioned a hoop out of an old coat hanger and an onion sack. For a basketball, he used an empty milk can. He couldn't dribble the first real basketball he got, because it had a hole in it, which he filled with paper and cloth. Despite such humble beginnings, Lemon became one of the most recognized names and faces in sports history as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, primarily through hard work and determination.   

Lemon recalled stories of his life Saturday at the 17th annual Humor Project conference, telling the 200 people who turned out for his afternoon presentation that anyone can achieve "the American Dream." "Don't ever lose your vision." he implored the group. "Don't ever lose your dream, whatever it is." Lemon was honored at the conference earlier Saturday when he was presented with The Humor Project's annual Humor and Altruism Award. The weekend conference is being held at the City Center. Although Lemon said he hadn't heard of The Humor Project before conference organizers contacted him, he said he strongly agrees with the group's purpose of promoting humor in life. "We need more humor projects in the world," Lemon said. "If you have more laughter, you will have more people with joy." Joel Goodman, the founder and director of The Humor Project, said the group decided to honor Lemon for his decades of bringing joy to people through his actions on and off the court.    

In addition to his comic style of basketball, Lemon also drew praise from Goodman for his work with young people and on anti-drug programs. "We're paying tribute to someone who has been bringing and spreading joy throughout the world," Goodman said. "It's just a small thank you for generating more than 4 billion smiles."    

Lemon spoke Saturday afternoon to a room packed full of people who hung on his every word. Flashing his wide smile and cracking people up with his contagious laugh, Lemon answered questions, talked about his life and even sang a gospel song. He explained that Meadowlark Lemon is his actual name - and that his father had the same name. He then recalled people he met while "growing up on the bus," including Satchel Paige, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles. When asked who was the best basketball player he ever played with, Lemon didn't hesitate to say Wilt Chamberlain. "People say Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) is strong," Lemon said. "This man would pick up cars and hide them."    

Lemon treated the crowd Saturday with some of his trademark tricks, with a red, white and blue basketball that the Harlem Globetrotters used. He did his flashy wraparound pass, followed by passes off his head and his backside. He then signed the ball and gave it to the woman he had picked from the audience to pass to. Catherine Lawrence, a lawyer from Toronto, said later that she was still in shock that she got to pass the ball with Lemon. "How lucky am I?" she said with a laugh. "What did I do to deserve this?