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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Here’s what I remember from Meadowlark Lemon’s hoops camp

“What’s your name, young man? Gimme five,” the towering figure asked, extending a gigantic hand and greeting me at the front door of the gymnasium, beaming a megawatt smile.

“Mike?” he replied. “I’m Meadowlark. Welcome to Camp Meadowlark!”

That was my introduction to the legend, Meadowlark Lemon, some 25 years ago, when the most famous member of the Harlem Globetrotters brought his camp to my home town of Warrenton, Virginia. I’d seen the dazzling basketball antics of the Harlem Globetrotters on TV, but this was my first in-the-flesh meeting with the “Clown Prince of Basketball.”

Meadowlark Lemon just slapped me five! I remember thinking. I’m sure every one of the other campers had the same thoughts, because Lemon – who on Sunday died at the age of 83 – waited there at the entrance of Fauquier High gymnasium and greeted every one of us the same way.

A short time later, we watched in amazement as Lemon opened the morning with a dizzying ball-handling display, whipping it around his head, rolling it off his shoulders, down one arm, up the other, spinning it off his fingers before capping it all off by swishing a half-court hook shot.

That week-long camp still stands out as one of my fondest childhood memories.

It didn’t spur me on to the NBA, or even a memorable high school or college career. But I probably gained something more valuable from Lemon in the grand scheme of things.

While we learned valuable basketball skills and the importance of hard work, it became evident that you can’t do all those fancy things with a basketball without hours of practice.

Yes, I learned how to spin a basketball and how to make a hook shot.

But most importantly, Meadowlark Lemon taught me how important it is to treat people with kindness and respect.

He’d roam from one skills station to another and it always seemed like he’d focus on the kid that perhaps wasn’t the most fluid, or most dynamic. If that kid made a shot, or finally mastered the lesson of that station, he’d applaud them as if they were the biggest star of the whole camp.

He’d sit with us at lunchtime, telling basketball stories, asking our stories and listen intently. I don’t think there was ever a day in which we didn’t have at least a brief conversation. That’s no easy task for any man when there are a couple of hundred kids to talk to. But Lemon did it.

As fellow camper Derek Goode – a friend I met at the camp and still remain in contact with today – said earlier Monday when we reminisced about that week with Meadowlark, “The one thing that sticks out in my mind about Meadowlark Lemon was the way he made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. As a young man, he helped instill confidence, not only in my game, but in myself. The way he treated people stuck with me since that first camp I attended. I’ve tried to mirror his actions in my life ever since those basketball camps in Warrenton so long ago.”

I second that.

So, whenever I hear “Globetrotters,” I think Meadowlark, the smile and high-fives he’d give me, the cheer I got from him when I sank a jump shot at a skills station, and how important he made me feel. And his example, coupled with the many others from the positive influences in my life, makes me want to be a better person – to treat people as the special beings that each of them are.

Lemon – who by that time in his life at that time in his career was an ordained minister and in addition to his camps ran a nonprofit evangelistic organization – also had another important message that he tried to pass on to anyone who would listen.

God has all given us gifts, so use them to the best of the ability, Meadowlark would preach. Work hard to develop those skills, whatever they may be, he said. Lemon’s gifts were obviously basketball and the ability to make people laugh. He aimed to use those gifts to the fullest to impact lives. And he nailed it, just like his half-court hook shots.

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