Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was a pioneer of early basketball when he became one of the first Black players to sign with an NBA team in 1950. He also had the skills to match, helping guide the New York Knicks to their first NBA Finals appearance during his first year with the team.
Clifton is the subject of the upcoming film Sweetwater, in theaters on April 14. The biopic highlights Clifton’s life, his signing with the Knickerbockers, and that historic 1950-51 season when Clifton made his immediate mark as a rookie player.
Early Life and Career
Born in England, Arkansas, on October 13, 1922, Clifton earned the nickname “Sweetwater” because of his love of soft drinks. His birth name was Clifton Nathaniel, but when he drew attention playing basketball for DuSable High School in Chicago, sports journalists switched his first and last names because they found Nathaniel too long to write in their stories, according to Ron Thomas’ 2004 book They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers.
After serving in the U.S. Army for three years during World War II, Clifton began his professional basketball career with the New York Renaissance, the first Black-owned, all-Black pro basketball team. The 6-foot-8-inch power forward’s long arms and big hands led him to a two-year stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. By 1950, he became one of the first African American players to sign an NBA contract.
The 27-year-old joined the New York Knicks, coached at the time by Joe Lapchick. Clifton encountered racism on and off the court during his career, especially while on the road for away games. But he found a strong ally in Lapchick, who had previously played for the Original Celtics and repeatedly faced the New York Renaissance, befriending several players and coaches on the team.
“If anyone was concerned how Sweetwater Clifton would fit in with his new Knicks teammates, all they needed to know was the team was going to take its cues from Lapchick, and no one in the NBA was more sensitive to the Black experience in America,” Foster Frank wrote in Sweetwater, his 2016 biography of Clifton.
A Winning Rookie Season
Already a good team when Sweetwater joined in 1950, the Knicks had made the playoffs for the previous four straight years, though it never won the NBA Finals. Clifton joined a strong roster that included Vince Boryla, Harry Gallatin, Dick McGuire, Connie Simmons, Ernie Vanderweghe, and Max Zaslofsky.
Clifton appeared tentative during his first practice with the Knicks, passing the ball every time he got it and never taking any shots, according to Frank. He started shooting more as time went on, but Clifton felt his primary role on the team was as a defender and rebounder, and it would take a year before his game reached its full potential.
“I was a rebounder and scored some and played some defense,” Clifton said, according to Thomas’ book. “I mostly guarded the tough guys on the other team. My idea was to try to have a winning team.”
Clifton played in all but one of New York’s 66 regular season games during the 1950-51 season, averaging 8.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, according to Frank. His shooting percentages of 32 from the field and 52 from the line were not exceptional but roughly in line with NBA averages at the time.
Making It to the Finals
After qualifying for the playoffs, the Knicks faced the Syracuse Nationals in the best-of-five division finals, splitting the first four games. Despite trailing by 12 points in Game 5, the Knicks came storming back and won 85-83, advancing to New York’s first NBA Finals.
They faced the Rochester Royals in a best-of-seven New York rivalry series for the championship. The Knicks had historically struggled against the Royals, having lost 11 straight games over more than three years at Rochester’s Egerton Park Sports Arena, according to The New York Times.
The 1951 Finals didn’t start well for the Knicks. They got routed in the first two games at Rochester by scores of 95-62 and 99-84 and were on the brink of elimination after losing Game 3 at home 78-71. “When, at the start of the playoffs, Rochester romped off with the first three games, it looked as if only a miracle would save the New York club,” The New York Times wrote.
In Game 4, the Knicks fell behind early by 17 points, but Clifton double-doubled with 14 points and 17 rebounds, scoring late to help the team win 79-73 and keep its championship dreams alive. New York followed that game with its first victory in Rochester territory, winning 79-73 as Clifton led the team in rebounds and assists, according to Frank.
When the Knicks won again in Game 6 and tied the series, it set up the NBA’s first-ever Game 7 in an NBA Finals. “Both squads were guilty of some ragged basketball from time to time, but no one could fault the Knicks on their stamina,” The New York Times wrote after Game 6. “They had the visitors gasping for breath toward the finish.”
The final game of the series returned to Rochester, where the Royals had a 92-16 home record in the past three seasons. After an early 14-point deficit, the Knicks roared back and tied the game at 69-69 with six minutes remaining, Frank wrote. But Clifton fouled out, leaving New York vulnerable in the front court, and Royals took the championship with a 79-75 victory.
“Against seemingly insurmountable handicaps, Joe Lapchick’s New Yorkers gave their all,” The New York Times wrote.
A Hall of Fame Career
Clifton spent six more seasons with the New York Knicks, making the NBA Finals again in 1952 and 1953 though never winning. Clifton started playing more aggressively after 1954, Thomas wrote, and his scoring improved to the point that he averaged a double-double in points and rebounds for two consecutive seasons and made the 1957 All-Star Team.
Clifton played for the Knicks until 1957, then played one one season with the Detroit Pistons before retiring from the NBA in 1958 at age 35. He moved back to Chicago, where he lived until his death on August 31, 1990, at age 67. In 2014, he was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which notes that Clifton’s nickname Sweetwater “might just as well have described his sugary-sweet skills on the basketball court.”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.