Monday, December 28, 2015

Games, Grins, and Meadowlark

Was sad to read this morning about the passing of Meadowlark Lemon, the famous Harlem Globetrotter and North Carolina native. Spent time this morning reading about his interesting life, then remembering the time when as a kid I had a chance to see Lemon and the Globetrotters in the late 1970s.

It had to have been one of Lemon’s last games with the team, as I’m being reminded today he left the Globetrotters in 1978 after 22 years with the barnstorming group of riotous roundballers. They played the Washington Generals, natch. And beat them, natch. Lemon sunk a hook shot from half-court, tossed a water cooler full of confetti on spectators in the first row, and shot a free throw with rubberbands attached to the ball so it sprung back into his hands.

As a kid I recall that the distinction between the Globetrotters and other basketball teams -- i.e., “real” ones such as in the NBA -- wasn’t exactly one hundred percent clear. Eventually I figured out their games were more like highly entertaining exhibitions than actual competitions, but I don’t think I understood that to be the case that night at the Greensboro Coliseum when I saw them.

Of course, the Globetrotters were always about making audiences laugh and have fun, with basketball serving as a kind of unique comedic medium in which to perform their specialized brand of theater. That Lemon was inducted into both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the International Clown Hall of Fame is fitting, given how his contributions were equally significant in both realms.

I often write about poker being about more than simply winning money or even competing, but like other games (and sports) also about enjoying others’ company and also perhaps participating in a kind of “show” in which the players are the performers. Poker also obviously brings together people of disparate backgrounds, providing a context to interact and even create communities among themselves. Basketball (and other sports) function similarly for many as well.

Doyle Brunson was also a basketball player, and in The Godfather of Poker he writes a bit about other parallels between the sport and the card game. There’s also a chapter in there near the middle where Brunson describes a kind of crisis of faith he endured following the death of his daughter, Doyla. In the early 1980s he got reacquainted with Christianity and even for about a year-and-a-half helped organize some “Bible studies” among players in Las Vegas. To make things more interesting, he’d bring in celebrity speakers and Meadowlark Lemon -- who’d become an ordained minister in 1986 -- was one of them.

One other thought comes to mind when searching for connections between the Harlem Globetrotters and poker. As the Globetrotters became more and more popular during the 1970s -- a true pop culture phenomenon -- they helped make basketball more popular, too. Many point to that moment at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s when the NBA really took off (with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and a little later Michael Jordan), saying how the Globetrotters had kind of set the stage for that explosion in popularity some respects by having brought b-ball to larger audiences in the preceding years.

The Globetrotters played what might be called an “exaggerated” version of the game, a somewhat distorted image perhaps which -- as I mentioned before -- as a kid I didn’t necessarily realize was all that different from “real” basketball. Poker kind of underwent something like that, too, with the “boom” of televised poker in the 2000s and a presentation that introduced poker to many in a kind of “exaggerated” fashion that wasn’t exactly what most poker really was (or is).

I guess there’s something about that image of the Globetrotters in a circle, passing the ball around as “Sweet Georgia Brown” whistles along as the soundtrack, that resembles a poker table, too.

Except it’s chips we’re passing back and forth, not a ball. And perhaps doing a few tricks with as well.

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