Saturday, July 17, 2010
Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton
October 13, 1922 – August 31, 1990
Professional basketball player
One of the first three African-American players in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton was actually the first under official contract to play in the league. He was a "first" in another way as well: he might be considered the NBA's first black star. While Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd, Clifton's African-American contemporaries who integrated the NBA in the year 1950, were low-key, low-profile players, Clifton was a popular figure and a born entertainer who delighted fans with his feats on the court. Some said that had he come of age in the era of multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, he would have scored big with his public-friendly personality and become a rich man.
A player who spent some years in all-black leagues before coming to the NBA, Clifton avoided divulging his age. He is reported to have been born in England, Arkansas, on October 13, 1922. Clifton's family moved to Chicago when he was eight. His birth name was Clifton Nathaniel, but after he became a high school star in Chicago he reversed the two names when sportswriters complained that the last name Nathaniel was too long to fit in a headline. The nickname "Sweetwater" (or "Sweets") is often reported to have derived from his fondness for soft drinks, but the truth revealed more about the life of Southern black migrants in Chicago: since the family often couldn't afford soft drinks, Clifton would fill bottles with water and then pour sugar into them.
Standing over 6-foot, 7-inches tall and weighing 235 pounds, Clifton dominated his opponents while playing on the basketball team at Chicago's DuSable High School. His hands spanned ten inches, and he could pick up and palm a basketball as easily as others might handle a tennis ball. In the city championship semifinals in his senior year of 1942, he scored 45 points, blowing away the former tournament record of 24. The Chicago Daily News called him one of the two greatest high school basketball players in Illinois history. He also played softball on a team called the Gas House Gang.
Clifton played one season at Xavier University in New Orleans before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. He served for three years in Europe and then turned professional on his return home, becoming the first black player to join the Dayton Metropolitans and then playing for the all-black New York Rens. In July of 1948 Clifton signed with the Harlem Globetrotters, the legendary African-American masters of razzle-dazzle basketball. The Globetrotters were at the peak of their fame and influence, touring the world and drawing thousands for exhibition games at which they often defeated all-white NBA squads. Clifton was signed for a reported annual salary of $10,000—said to be the highest salary paid to a black basketball player up to that time.
For a while it wasn't clear which major-league sport Clifton would play in first. Baseball scouts were well aware of the power he had shown on Chicago softball diamonds, and while he was with the Globetrotters he played for three seasons in major league baseball's farm system. In 1950, playing for the AA-level team in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he hit .304 with an impressive 86 runs batted in. Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein began looking for chances to unload his restless star property.
That chance came in the summer of 1950, after the Boston Celtics had drafted Chuck Cooper and officially broken the NBA's color line. After a stretch of negotiations, Saperstein sold Clifton's contract to the New York Knickerbockers for $12,500, of which Clifton pocketed $2,500. In today's world of stratospheric salaries this would be considered a raw deal, and Clifton had questions even at the time. He was also upset after discovering that the white all-stars against whom the Globetrotters played exhibition games were paid better than the 'Trotters themselves. But he remained on good enough terms with Saperstein to continue to play for the Globetrotters during the NBA off-season.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, (according to the Social Security Administration death records, he was born Clifton Nathaniel. Clifton was given the "Sweetwater" nickname as a boy because of his love of soft drinks. His family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he became an outstanding basketball and baseball player at DuSable High School, graduating in 1942. He attended Xavier University of Louisiana and then served with the United States Army for three years, fighting for his country in Europe during World War II.
Early pro sports career
After the war, Sweetwater Clifton joined the New York Rens, an all-black professional basketball team that toured throughout the United States. Noted for his large hands, which required a size 14 glove, he was invited to join the Harlem Globetrotters, for whom he played from the summer of 1948 to the spring of 1950. Still a talented baseball first baseman, during the basketball off-season in 1949 Clifton played for the Chicago American Giants in Negro League baseball. By 1950, his performance with the Globetrotters, in particular his exceptional ball handling ability, led to his becoming the first African American player to sign a contract with an NBA team.
Already 27 when he made his debut as a member of the New York Knicks, in his first season Clifton helped lead the team to its first-ever appearance in the NBA finals. During his eight seasons in the NBA, Clifton averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds per game. He was named to the 1957 NBA All-Star team, scoring 8 points in 23 minutes in the game. At age 34, he became the oldest player in NBA history to be named an All-Star.
In 1957, Clifton was part of a multi-player trade between the Knicks and the Detroit Pistons, but after one season in Detroit he retired from basketball. In the summer of 1958, he joined the Detroit Clowns baseball team in the Negro Leagues, along with his former Harlem Globetrotters teammate Reece "Goose" Tatum.
In 1961, he was coaxed out of retirement by the Chicago Majors of the fledgling American Basketball League (ABL). After the league folded at the end of 1962, the 40-year-old Clifton retired permanently.
Honors and charitable work
Clifton's contributions to his community during his sporting career and after his playing days have been recognized by the Associated Black Charities of New York City. They have honored him by naming one of the Black History Maker Awards the Nathaniel 'Sweetwater' Clifton Award. In 2005, the New York Knicks basketball team re-named their monthly "City Spirit Award" in his honor. The Sweetwater Clifton City Spirit Award is given to a member of the community who goes above and beyond his or her normal duties to make the lives of others in the tri-state area better.
On his passing in 1990, Sweetwater Clifton was interred in the Restvale Cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Alsip.
Chuck Cooper (basketball) and Earl Lloyd, also among the first African American players in the NBA in 1950
BasketballReference.com: Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton stats
Nat Clifton stats at Sports Pool website