Monday, December 28, 2015

Sweet Georgia downer

I could write about the Colts this day, winning while losing ground as their playoff hopes flicker. I could write about the meager sustenance Colts nation will take from their guys winning while the Evil Empire in New England lost, or how the Arizona Cardinals suddenly look like the smart pick to win the Super Bowl, or how the Carolina Panthers finally went down to the Falcons, igniting a flurry of popping champagne corks from the '72 Dolphins, who after 43 years still have intact and fully functional gloat genes.

But, nah. Today, the Blob would rather throw a bucket of confetti on all that.

It will do so in honor of Meadowlark Lemon, aka the Clown Prince of Basketball, aka the beating heart of the Harlem Globetrotters when the Globies were going about keeping pro basketball off the ventilator back in the 1950s and early '60s. Meadow passed yesterday at 83, an American icon and one more symbol of a time in this country that has itself passed.

We figured that out, of course, some months ago, when the Globies announced they were cutting ties with their longtime foils, the Washington Generals. Odes to the nobility of losing for the storyline's sake followed, including in this space.

But Meadow dying is far more significant, and affords the opportunity to remind a nation largely ignorant of its own history that there was a time when the NBA was not LeBron 'n' Steph Curry 'n' them.  College buckets owned the sport 60 or 65 years ago; the pro version was a sideshow played in high school gyms in quiet little towns (i.e.: Fort Wayne, Sheboygan, etc.) that in some cases (i.e.: Fort Wayne) didn't even have rail service. And it was overwhelmingly, glaringly, white.

Enter the Globies, who not only gave employment to black players the NBA was reluctant to hire, but gave the early NBA an attendance bump every time it played a league city. And they did that a lot. It's not much of a stretch to say without them -- and without the point-shaving scandals that severely wounded the college game in the '50s -- the league might never have survived.

Likely pro hoops would have been reborn anyway. But its path would have definitely been a different one -- and certainly, Meadow and Co. played a role in keeping that from happening.

If their act was just that, an act, it was also a window into a style of basketball the pro game would eventually come to embrace, to its great good fortune. The 3-point shot and other showbiz touches introduced by the ABA -- and later adopted by the stodgy old NBA -- had their spiritual antecedents in Meadow and his guys.  If Meadow's sleight-of-hand dishes out of the post didn't directly beget the no-look wizardry of Pistol Pete Maravich, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, you could at least see their ghostly outlines in the latters' work.

And so, let's honor those outlines today. Raise a glass. Wad up a piece of paper in the office and throw it behind your back. And raise a fervent hope that, as Meadow goes to his rest, he'll do so beneath a blizzard of confetti, flung from buckets held by his friends and family.

It is, after all, the only fitting tribute.

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