The world instantly seemed a less colorful place when full-court jester Meadowlark Lemon died just after Christmas at age 83.
Little matter that Lemon hadn’t played for the Harlem Globetrotters since way back in the 1970s and never enjoyed as much as a sip of Gatorade in the NBA. With his high-spirited clowning, killer ball handling and otherworldly half-court hook shots, he was a legend who captured the imagination of generations. And when he passed, the tributes spread, from The New York Times’ lengthy obituary to a slam dunk across social media that went on for days.
Nate “Big Easy” Lofton was more melancholy than most.
Big Easy is the latest in a long line of Globetrotter athlete-entertainers to play the same attention-grabbing role as Lemon. Instead of center, forward or guard, the official team bio lists the 6-foot-9, 250-pound baller as “Showman.”
Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, the Globetrotters organization, which is in the process of moving its operation from Phoenix to Peachtree Corners, starts every year teaching its players about the team’s epic history. Now in his 11th season with the team, Big Easy had never met Lemon, but he had studied his gamesmanship on tape and heard tales.
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The present and past Showmen were scheduled to meet in Chicago, where the Globetrotters would be taping an ESPN anniversary special. But a few days before the much-anticipated encounter, Lemon died.
“I was definitely bummed that I didn’t get to meet him,” Big Easy said in an interview from the endless road. “It’s an honor to be doing what he did. If I can do it a quarter as good as he did, I would love to. That would be enough for me, right?”
Big Easy and the Globetrotters will salute Lemon and dazzling dribbler Marques Haynes, who died last May at 89, when their annual tour hits Duluth’s Infinite Energy Arena on March 5 and Philips Arena on March 12 and 13.
Players will wear 1940s throwback uniforms for the first half of each game to mark the anniversary.
“Big Easy and many of his teammates truly embrace the history and take their jobs very seriously, knowing they are carrying on a tradition that has been going strong for 90 consecutive years,” Globetrotter spokesman Eric Nemeth said. “Obviously, they put their own flavor on it — and many of the jokes change with the times — but the classics remain.”
Those classics include the water bucket routine and hook shots from insane distances. In fact, Big Easy holds the Guinness World Record for the farthest hook, hit from 61 feet and 4 inches.
Such shows of skill and shenanigans weren’t what Big Easy had in mind after he helped lead Southeastern Louisiana University to its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2005, his senior year. The two-time All-Southland Conference selection, who exhibited some Globetrotter-esque flair, high-fiving fans after special plays, was hoping to take his game to Asia when Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown of New Orleans that summer.
After the levees let go, Big Easy and family members and friends pushed a pickup truck through the flooded streets to higher ground. The truck cranked and the unlucky 13 high-tailed it to Houston, camping out at a Motel 6.
A couple of days later, Big Easy’s agent advised by phone, the Globetrotters were doing an event for Katrina evacuees there, and the college star was invited to work out and hang out with the team, “to clear my mind of all the devastation that had been going on around me.”
The team liked the young man and invited him to join. With that positive turn, the first thing he did was spring his crew from the motel and get them settled in an apartment.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Big Easy said. “I think I’m where I’m at because it’s where I should be. A lot of bad things came from the hurricane, but this is one of the stories you hear where a good thing came. … And going through that bad to receive this blessing, I appreciate it.”
A guy who once “was happy just to be able to go to Mississippi” has now traveled to so many countries that he lost count somewhere between 85 and 93.
A highlight of his globetrotting was scoring an audience with the pope last year. One New Orleans media outlet trumpeted the visit with a hilariously profane headline: “Pope Francis balls with Harlem Globetrotters at the Vatican.”
“It was amazing, getting to meet the pope,” Big Easy said. “He shook our hand. And it was crazy because he told us to pray for him. I thought that was unique.”
So, did he?
“I did. If the pope says pray for him, you pray for him. He was a nice guy, too.”