Sports postsWednesday December 30, 2015
Meadowlark Lemon (1932-2015)
Meadowlark, with his game face on.
I first knew him as part of a Saturday morning cartoon show, “Harlem Globe Trotters,” which debuted in September 1970, and which, I suppose, is how I came to know basketball. What I didn’t know: He wasn’t doing his own voice (Scatman Crothers was), and it was the first regular network cartoon to feature a mostly African-American cast—beating “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” by two years. But I was a kid, and truly color blind then. The blinds came off a few years later.
I also remember him from the live-action variety show “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine” (“And now/Rodney Allen Rippy, take a bow”), which debuted in 1974, as well as all of those commercials he did. He shilled for Vitalis, stacked Whoppers for Burger King, squeezed the Charmin. The Globetrotters even solved a mystery with Scooby Doo and the gang.
I also remember seeing them once in person in the early 1970s at, I believe, the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn. I think I expected the up-close “wow” factor of the cartoons and was slightly disappointed to be so far away from them and their antics.
Of course you could never forget his name: Meadowlark Lemon. So mellifluous. So beautiful.
Am I the only one who remembers a theme song for him? Because I can’t find it anywhere online, and almost every pop cultural scrap is online now. It went something like this:
Dah dah dah dah dah
He’s so dah, and so dah
Dah dah dah dah dah
And everybody’s sayin’
Oh Meadowlark Oh Lemon
Everybody loves you, Meadowlark
Probably to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” per the Globetrotters own theme song. Anyone?
The Washington Post has a nice obit on the man born Meadow George Lemon in 1932 in Wilmington, N.C., which doesn’t mention the cartoon show; so does The New York Times, which does. Both obits tell me more of what I didn’t know: that before they were a pop cultural phenomenon, the Harlem Globetrotters were a cultural one. I.e., before they regularly played their foils, the Washington Generals, in games that were mostly antics, they played college All-Stars and NBA championship teams in games that were mostly serious. It was a segregated era, and the Globetrotters regularly beat the best white teams, and helped integrate basketball as a result. The first black player signed to an NBA contract was Globetrotters center Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in 1950. Four years later, Meadowlark joined the Trotters and quickly became its leader and star.
They really were basketball’s good-will ambassadors. One wonders if the sport would’ve become the global phenomenon it’s become, as quickly as it’s become, without them.
This Times article is from 1950:
This one is from 1959:
Eventually their performances, perhaps out of necessity, because less serious, more comedy. For some, it was out of step in an era of black power. They paved the way but were criticized by those for whom they paved it.
There was a fall throughout the ’70s, and bottom may have been the made-for-TV movie, “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” in 1981. Meadowlark had left the team by then over a contract dispute, and was making his own name on TV (“Hello, Larry”) and in movies (“The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh”). But he more or less disappeared from mainstream media by the mid-1980s.
The most startling quote from both obits comes from Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the Globetrotters for a year, in 1959, and who said the following before his death in 1999:
Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.
There’s a good documentary to be made here.
#tbt: Halloween 1972
Admittedly not a very scary costume, even if, once upon a time, the Vikings' defense was known as the Purple People Eaters. I was a small, sickly kid who never played football and could barely do the three-point stance. But I did love this team.
Purple People Eaten.
Memory tells me I began to get into the Minnesota Vikings the year Gary Cuozo led them to a 7-7 record, but Football Reference tells me my memory sucks. The last year Cuozo was the Vikings' main QB was in '71, when they went 11-3 but lost in the divisional playoffs to the Dallas Cowboys. It was the next season, the first with Fran Tarkenton as QB again, that we went 7-7 and didn't make the playoffs—the only season between '68 and '78, actually, that the Vikings didn't make the playoffs. I believe the above photo is from that 7-7 season.
There was an early karmic symmetry to the Super Bowl that I noticed back then and relied upon in some sad fashion. It went like this:
- The loser of the first Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs, won Super Bowl IV three years later.
- The loser of the third Super Bowl, the Baltimore Colts, won Super Bowl V two years later.
- The loser of the fifth Super Bowl, the Dallas Cowboys, won Super Bowl VI a year later.
- The loser of the sixth Super Bowl, the Miami Dolphins, won Super Bowl VII a year later.
So it was my assumption that when the loser of the fourth Super Bowl, my Minnesota Vikings, played the Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII, we would finally get our due. It would be our time for cosmic, karmic rebalancing. Right? Or at least, for God's sake, in Super Bowl IX against the Steelers? Or, c'mon, for fuck's sake, against the Raiders in Super Bowl XI?
John Oliver's Advice to Seahawks Fans: 'It Will Always Hurt'
That, and “walk it off.” Literally.
There's been nothing but reaction to the Seahawks loss in Super Bowl XLIX. Generally the immediate reaction—“What the FUCK!?!”—is still the reaction; but anger leads to ache, and ache lead to soul-searching (as a way to remove the ache), and you wind up with thoughts like these from my friends.
From Ben S.:
I woke up at 4 a.m. thinking about yesterday's nightmare Super Bowl. ... I spent the first 18 years of my life in Boston, the last five in Seattle. Would I trade the Emerald City for Beantown? The Olympics for the White Mountains? Top Pot Donuts for Dunkin' Donuts? Carroll for Belichick? Brady for Wilson? Blount for Beast Mode? Revis for Sherman? The Legion of Boom for whatever you call the Patriots' secondary? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, and no. The Seahawks are the most entertaining, rugged, soulful team I've ever rooted for. We'll be back.
From Chris K.:
I'm going to go out on a limb and not criticize last night's final play call. I don't think I'm alone in loving when the Seahawk's play calls have gotten creative, and the risks they take have worked out in their favor. ... If we start running Marshawn up the middle every time next year as a result I will be very disappointed - that is not a good lesson learned and I don't think it will work out for us. Go for the fake field goal, launch the wild 2-point conversion, throw the long bomb to the guy who hasn't caught a ball the whole season - those are exciting risks that winners take when they have faith in themselves and I love to watch it happen.
Here's Mr. B, longtime, long-suffering fan:
14-5. Back-to-back NFC Conference Championships. Gave the Patriots one hell of a game. I'll take that. I think 30 other NFL teams would, too. Thank you, Seahawks. See you in six months.
But my reaction is closer to Joe Posnanski's, who is both more empathetic and less forgiving:
The loneliest man in football was shell-shocked and disoriented, but he already knew what everyone thought. Pete Carroll had just lost the Super Bowl. He just had lost the Super Bowl with a decision that he could never explain well enough, a decision that even his players didn’t really understand, a decision that sports fans will talk about for as long as Super Bowls are played. ...
In the heat of one of the hottest Super Bowls, he had made an instinctual decision. Coaches are trained to take advantage of matchups. They are primed to counter their opponent’s moves. What seemed so obvious to more or less everyone else on earth – you HAVE to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line with the Super Bowl on the line – was in Carroll’s mind clouded by the moment, by the complications of football strategy, by the natural tendency every coach has to be just a little bit smarter. The Patriots dared him to pass. He passed. He lost.
I'm not much of a football fan. It's another 8x11 sport. You turn a piece of paper horizontally and that's your field: Team A on one side, Team B on the other, an object of some kind. The point of the game is to get that object into your opponent's goal more often than they get it in yours before time expires. That's hockey, soccer, basketball, football. They're all fundamentally the same. Metaphors for war.
I'd been a fan of football, in the 1970s in Minnesota, but that's enough to cure almost anyone. Three Super Bowls in four years, and blowout losses in each of them. Pain, over something I couldn't control. Eventually I thought, “Why care?” This thought coincided with both the decline of the Vikings and the rise of dealing with asshole football players in high school. “You mean these guys grow to be those guys?” So I got out. By the early 1980s, I caught a Super Bowl now and again but that was it. And every time I checked it out, I was confused or turned off. Wait, isn't that intentional grounding? Wait, defensive lineman now celebrate after every sack? Classy. Football was background noise for me. Deep background.
Seattle's love affair with the Seahawks finally won me over again. I'd talk to colleagues about the games, the team, the hopes. I'd see the city lit up—literally—a big “12” everywhere on the sides of downtown skyscrapers. It was fun. They were fun: a trash-talking, mostly black team in a staid, mostly white city. I began to learn player names. I began to care again. I began to feel—particularly after the Green Bay game—that I was putting all of those horrible Vikings Super Bowl losses behind me. Two Mondays ago, I even talked about the possibility of catharsis. It was finally going to be good.
Recently I've been reading Andrew Ross Sorkin's book, “Too Big to Fail” on the busride to work, so I've been thinking a little about risk lately. I admit that I don't risk enough in life. I'm too cautious: a worst-case-scenario guy. Which is why I never would've run a debt-to-equity ratio of 60-1 like Lehman Brothers, nor would I have done what Pete Carroll and the Seahawks did at the 1-yard line, down by 4, with seconds to go in Super Bowl XLIX; but then I never would never have been in a position to be there in the first place.
I disagreed with the play during the play. Wait, they're not handing off to Marshawn? They're throwing? It better .... And then it happened, and the reality of it sunk in, the unchangeable, awful reality, and I knew, immediately, that it would always be this way. Nothing could ever change that. And this ending would be talked about as long as people talked about football. That thought echoed inside of me until I began to ache from it. And as with my friends above, I searched for some way to remove the ache.
On the ride home from Ben's, I thought of the Peanuts comic strip above. (Also here and here.) They were famous comic strips. I remember reading them in “Peanuts” books long before I knew what game they referred to. Initially, I thought Charlie Brown was talking about any old game. But he wasn't.
It was the 1962 World Series, and the San Francisco Giants were facing the defending champion New York Yankees. In the bottom of the 9th of Game 7, the Giants were losing 1-0, as Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry worked on a two-hit shutout. But Matty Alou led off with a bunt single. Felipe Alou tried to bunt him over, missed, and struck out, as did Chuck Hiller. But the next man up was Willie Mays, and he was thinking homer. Instead, he crushed a ball to right, which died in the wet outfield grass, allowing right fielder Roger Maris to cut it off. Mays wound up on second with a double but Alou only made it to third: third-base coach Whitey Lockman held him up. He thought the play at the plate would've been too close, and besides, Willie McCovey, the second-best hitter on the team, was coming up. Give him a chance, he thought. McCovey delivered. He rocketed another ball to right, but right at second baseman Bobby Richardson, who gloved it for the final out. Three feet higher and both Alou and Mays would've scored and the Giants would've won. Instead ...
Instead we got Charles Schulz's series of heartbreaking strips about the game. He published them throughout the long, cold offseason: Charlie Brown and Linus looking glum for three panels, and then in the last panel Charlie Brown cursing the heavens: “If only McCovey had hit the ball just three feet higher!” In the second, it's two feet higher. In the final one, one. The difference between victory and defeat.
That's what I was thinking about on the ride home. If only we'd handed off to Marshawn three more times. Two more times. One more time.
I get what my friends are saying above. I get the wisdom of it all. I get the “Bronx Tale” wisdom I posted about earlier today, too. Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson and Kam Chancellor make millions of dollars. They don't know about me, or care about me, so why should I care about them? I remind myself I'm a fair-weather fan, and fair-weather fans are supposed to go elsewhere when the weather turns foul. I think about Roger Kahn's great line about the Brooklyn Dodgers—how you glory in a team triumphant but you fall in love with a team in defeat—and wonder if this defeat will lead to something positive. Most of life is losing, I tell myself. You learn more from losing, I tell myself.
But in my mind I keep handing off to Marshawn Lynch.