Editor's note: This article ran in the Arizona Daily Star Jan. 22, 1981. "Tales from the Morgue" is running it again as a memorial to Meadowlark Lemon, who died today. Thanks to Mr. Ring for calling it to our attention.
BISBEE — After bouncing around the globe for years, Meadowlark Lemon has found a home on the range.
As a professional basketball player and entertainer — first with the Harlem Globetrotters and now with his own team, the Bucketeers — Lemon has played more than 8,000 basketball games in more than 1,000 cities and 80 countries.
Now Meadowlark has come to roost 10 miles northwest of here at El Rancho Escondido — "The Hidden Ranch."
"Nobody bothers me here," he says.
The bristly, rolling Mule Mountains guard three sides of the 18,000-acre ranch. Three hundred head of cattle roam through the vast expanse of ocotillo, prickly pear, mesquite and yucca.
A tall rustic sign on the paved highway is the only trace of Lemon's pride in his Western dream. Fastened atop it is his brand — a small wooden lemon and three carved letters: LEM.
At the end of a rough-rock, red-dirt road that twists and turns like a short guard going in for a layup, the ranch buildings wait like an unguarded hoop. The corrals, sheds, windmills, shade trees and casually deposited horse and cattle droppings are all authentic.
"This is more than a notion," Lemon says. "This is my home, this is my roots. This is it."
Inside one of the mobile homes that provide temporary shelter until his new house is built, Lemon pushes back a low table to make room for his long legs.
Mementos of his profession surround him: basketballs, old jerseys, posters and trophies.
Leaning back and affectionately thumping his dog, Baron, he talks of coming a long way from Wilmington, N.C., where he was born and raised "a long time ago." For publicity reasons — he still plays in Bucketeers games — he won't admit to his 48 years.
Asked if any aches and pains trouble him from his years of physical performance and practice, he shows a confident face. "Nope," he says, leaning forward to knock on the wooden table.
Later, though, as he steps down to the ground from the raised mobile home, his knee seems to have stiffened and his movements are not as smooth as they were 26 years ago when he first played with the Globetrotters.
"That's Father Time doing that for me," he admits. "I don't jump so good anymore."
Still the joker, he says: "I can't do some of the things I used to do. I can't even do some of the things I did last week."
He says he quit the Globetrotters in 1978 because he was underpaid for his work, which included sparkplugging the team's ballplaying and comedy and running a training camp.
Also, he says, many of his old teammates had left and management had changed several times.
"The name Harlem Globetrotters and what it has done for the sport is something great. But to the people who own it and run it now, it's just a dollar sign.
"They aren't what they once were," he says.
Quitting basketball game Lemon time to branch out as a professional and try something he had always dabbled in: entertainment.
For a couple of years, he went "Hollywood." He bought a Rolls Royce and a home in Bel Air and opened a business office in Los Angeles.
He starred in a television comedy series — "Hello, Larry" — playing himself, an aging basketball player. That show folded during its second year, but he recently has completed a pilot program for another show, in which he again plays a basketball player.
"I enjoy entertaining. I'll probably never be able to give it up. I'll probably do it until the day I die."
But he couldn't let his years of basketball experience dribble away, so two years ago he started putting together the Bucketeers. The team, which he owns, is based in nearby Bisbee between road tours.
"This isn't just a dollar sign to me. You need a certain amount of loyalty and love to make anything happen," he says.
Last month, to reduce his travel time and work load, he began shutting down his California operations, moving for good to his hidden ranch.
"I was always leaving L.A. and my Rolls to get back here to my Jeep," he says. "I love it here — the people, the weather, the moon coming over the mountains.
"I'll probably just end up with a ranch truck. Everything else will just go down the drain."
He bought the ranch three years ago and hired a foreman to help run it.
"He's a pro," Lemon says. "When I go out there to work, he tells me what to do.
"He teaches me how to rope, ride fence, round up stock. I think you need a doctor's degree to run a ranch like this."
Lemon has taken to the ranch with the same enthusiasm he once took to the basketball courts. He rides a huge buckskin horse named Bucwheat and collects cowboy hats.
"I see a hat, I pick it up," he says.
While at the ranch, Lemon lives a somewhat solitary life. His former wife and five kids "are scattered all over," he says.
One son, Meadowlark George, helps the bucketeers as assistant road manager.
For companionship, Lemon relies on his dogs.
"I've got nine of 'em out here. One showed up one day, one just hung around. We had one that had puppies. Two were left here."
For the next six months, Lemon will be on the road more often than not, traveling with the Bucketeers during the team's first full season.
"Last year, we were testing the water. This year, we're going out to take a piece of the pie."
And Lemon plans to keep active as an occasional player with the Bucketeers.
"I've played more than 8,000 games, and I plan to shoot for 10,000. I doubt if I'll make it, but it's something to shoot for."