Meadowlark Lemon was renowned for his hook shot and his sense of humor. But for himself, his later years as a born-again Christian and ordained minister took center court in his life.
But you wouldn't know it from the Washington Post's obituary on the famed member of the Harlem Globetrotters. The newspaper relegates Lemon's spiritual life nearly to the status of a footnote.
The Post starts with his inspiration after seeing a newsreel on the Globetrotters, skilled sportsmen who were "all black men. The same color as me." It notes drily that Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Globetrotters, "embraced the novel idea, missed by many of his contemporaries, that some black people could actually play basketball."
Like other mainstream media reports, WaPo recalls an amazing endorsement from the late Wilt Chamberlain, himself a former Globetrotter, that Lemon "was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen" -- even more than Dr. J or Michael Jordan. And it has other fun parts, like how the future sports star practiced as a boy: with "a basketball hoop fashioned out of an onion sack and a wire coat hanger nailed to a tree behind a neighbor’s house. His ball was an empty Carnation evaporated milk can salvaged from the garbage."
The obit includes a frank accounting of the cost of basketball stardom: neglecting his 10 children while playing basketball and divorcing his first wife, who was arrested after stabbing him in 1978. He even apologized this family when he was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 2003, the Post says.
Finally, the story gets around to something that, by its own admission, loomed large in his life:
As proud as Lemon was of his performance on the court, he was perhaps prouder of his performance in another arena: He was ordained as a minister in 1986, according to his website.
"I have been called the Clown Prince of Basketball, and an Ambassador of Good Will in Short Pants to the world, which is an honor," he wrote. "To be a child of God is the highest honor anyone could have."
In the end, he laid credit for all he had accomplished on the court and off at the feet of the almighty.
"God planted that dream in my heart as I sat right there in the Ritz Theater," Lemon wrote. "He gave me a relentless desire, determination, energy, and the talent to make my dream come true."
So Lemon's ministry took up about 35 percent of his life, and longer than his 24 years with the Globetrotters. And where does the Post mention it? "In graf 20 of a 24-graf story," as one of our faithful readers says. "In a rather 'Oh, by the way' fashion."
And some mainstream media were even more negligent. An AP-ESPN obit on Lemon plays up nearly everything else: his game stats, his playing skill, his TV and movie gigs, "his confetti-in-the-water-bucket routine." ESPN even found room to mention the Globetrotters cartoon show and Lemon's guest "appearance" on Scooby Doo. Nothing on the faith that consumed much of his life.
To achieve this, ESPN actually carved out the spiritual content in the AP's obit:
Lemon spent the last years of his life trying to spread a message of faith through basketball. He became an ordained minister in 1986 and was a motivational speaker, touring the country to meet with children at basketball camps and youth prisons with his Scottsdale-based Meadowlark Lemon Ministries.
"I feel if I can touch a kid in youth prison, he won't go to the adult prison," Lemon said in 2003.
AP apparently read Lemon's website, where WaPo got what info on his ministry it did include. The site is blunt about Lemon's aims and motivation: "Meadowlark’s life as a basketball celebrity and as one of the world’s most recognizable athletes and entertainers has given him access to millions who might not otherwise hear the 'good news' of a loving God who knows them by name and loves them.
The page shows how broad his ministry became: his own athletic camp, youth prison work, cooperation with the White House on drug awareness, an outreach to the Miwok Tribe in Auburn, Calif., his books like Trust Your Next Shot, his work with groups like the YMCA, the Salvation Army and Boys and Girls Clubs, even motivational speaking at the Pentagon. None of that got into the above reports.
Some others do remember that other side Lemon, although the Hartford Courant simply reprinted a 1999 profile by columnist Jeff Jacobs. Unfortunately, the column is laced with snark about religion. Gibes like "Meadowlark Lemon wasn't ready when the Real Guy came with a calling." And "the Clown Prince of Basketball began barnstorming for the Prince of Peace." And "When wasn't Meadowlark Lemon a traveling preacher man? He is the Missionary of Happy, the Smiling Zealot." Terribly inappropriate for an obit.
At least Jacobs acknowledged Lemon's outreaches, citing his visits to youth groups, gangs, prisons and children's hospitals. And on Christmas of 1999, he reported, Lemon planned to donate 2,100 certificates for food to the poor in Arizona.
Dean Jones got much the same treatment in his obits last September. They played up his roles in The Love Bug and That Darn Cat. His rebirth as a Christian? His work with Coral Ridge Ministries? Most weren’t interested.
The sad thing is that the Washington Post did take note -- that time. Jones' life was a "story of a young man driven mad by Hollywood and saved by a dramatic come-to-Jesus moment," the obit said, and told something of his new life. Why didn’t it spot the same kind of faith in Meadowlark Lemon?
Yes, he was gifted, in humor and basketball skills. But he was much more to the varied flock to which he ministered for his last 29 years. This time the Post, and many other media, dropped the ball.
Thumb: Meadowlark Lemon atop the Empire State Building during a book tour in October 2010, from his website.