Long before athletes tweeted, and in-your-face dunks and tackles could be shared by millions instantly, Meadowlark Lemon became one of the most popular sports personalities in the world.
His dazzling basketball skills and slapstick humor were a key attraction for perhaps the most famous basketball team ever, the Harlem Globetrotters. He became known as the "Clown Prince of Basketball," appearing before presidents and kings and portraying himself in television programs, movies and cartoons.
Lemon "just had a great joy," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said Monday.
He died Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz., at age 83. The cause of death was not known, said Brett Meister, a spokesman for the Globetrotters.
Meister said Lemon had been scheduled to fly from his Scottsdale home to Chicago to take part in taping an ESPN special as part of the Globetrotters' 90th anniversary tour.
Lemon spent 24 years with the Globetrotters, joining the team in 1954 and acting as ringleader and showman-in-chief during the team's heyday through the 1960s and '70s.
Lemon and the Trotters toured more than 100 countries, introducing the sport to millions who had never before seen a basketball thrown through a hoop and breaking down cultural and racial barriers along the way.
During Lemon's early days, the all-black Globetrotters' influence was no less in the United States. The team showcased the talents of African American players such as Reece "Goose" Tatum and dribbling wizard Marques Haynes at a time when the fledgling National Basketball Assn. was largely white and lacked the razzle-dazzle of America's first show-time team.
The Globetrotters played exhibition ball, mixing theater and sports. But they were also seriously competitive, especially in the early years. Their victory in 1948 over the Minneapolis Lakers helped put the NBA on the map.
Many have speculated that Lemon might have been a huge NBA star had the league been more welcoming to black players.
By the time Lemon departed the Globetrotters in 1978, the NBA was far more integrated, and a more aggressive athleticism was helping it gain worldwide popularity. Lemon's basketball chops would influence Michael Jordan and other greats.
The Globetrotters' street style was something that helped draw fans to their games.