Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton Biography
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.
Clifton made his Knicks debut on November 3, 1950 and quickly became an integral part of the newly powerful squad. Playing at forward, he was often assigned to guard opposing centers. The Knicks made the NBA finals during each of Clifton's first three years, and he averaged 8.6 points per game as a rookie and cracked double digits in his second year. Clifton "had the body of a power forward of today but he never looked much to score," former Knickerbocker Al McGuire told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He was the first guy to really cuff a ball without the stickum. He even cleared his rebounds with one hand most of the time."
In fact, Clifton felt hamstrung by the conservative style of Knicks coach Joe Lapchick, who favored a game very different from the fast, high-scoring contests Clifton had been used to with the Globetrotters. Nevertheless, his career with the Knicks was a solid one. He got along well with his white teammates. "Around Chicago and in the army, I was used to playing with white players, and I could get along," Clifton was quoted as saying by They Cleared the Lane author Ron Thomas. "I figured everybody had to make a living and nobody gave me any dirt. They [the Knicks] were a great bunch of guys." Clifton joined other Knicks players at card games and in church. Only once did an opposing player, Bob Harris of the Celtics, insult Clifton with a racial slur, and Clifton knocked him out cold with a one-two punch combination. Normally, Clifton was known as a genial man with a taste for sharp clothing.
Clifton's best year was his last with the Knicks, the 1956-57 season, when he averaged over 13 points a game and played in the NBA All-Star Game. After that year he was traded to the Detroit Pistons and, after his first year there, in which he was frustrated with his lack of playing time, he left the NBA. He played for a startup pro team, the Harlem Magicians, and then spent several seasons with the still-popular Globetrotters and another startup, the Chicago Majors. After a knee injury in the mid-1960s, he retired.
Immensely popular in Chicago, Clifton had continued to live in his home neighborhood. Married, and with no pension coming from the NBA, he had to find a job. Though he had many contacts near home and probably could have landed a city government job, he settled on driving a taxi and continued to do so for the rest of his life. "He had a lot of avenues open to him, but he would never [have] been comfortable in a shirt and tie in an office; the worst thing in the world for him would be a 9-to-5." Inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1978, Clifton died at the wheel of his cab near Chicago's Union Station on August 31, 1990.
Thomas, Ron, They Cleared the Lane: The NBA's Black Pioneers, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
New York Times, September 2, 1990, Section 1, p. 41; September 4, 1990, p. D13.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 23, 1990, p. D10.
"Globetrotters Go for Legitimacy," CNN/Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/inside_game/alexander_wolff/news/2000/11/16/hoop_life (August 2, 2004).
"Nat Clifton," Basketball Reference, www.basketballreference.com (August 17, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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