Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton (1922–1990)

Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton was an early pioneer in professional basketball, playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and with the world-renowned Harlem Globetrotters. Far less well known is the fact that he was a legend in the game of sixteen-inch softball, as well as a talented baseball player.

Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton was born Clifton Nathaniel Jr. on October 13, 1922, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Clifton Clifton and Mattie Clifton, spending his early youth in England (Lonoke County). Life in Arkansas was hard, and while his children later said that he spoke little of that time, he did say that it included plenty of cotton picking. It was there that he got his nickname “sweetwater,” for he was known to love water mixed with sugar, and it was said he drank little else. Indeed, as an adult he was big fan of soft drinks, especially Coca-Cola.

Apparently seeking greater opportunity, his family moved to Chicago’s South Side when he was six. There, he was a star in both baseball and basketball for DuSable High School. He also played sixteen-inch softball, a version of the game in which fielders do not wear gloves. In response to local reporters noting that the name “Nathaniel” was too long for their articles, he shortened his name to Nat, thus emerging as Nat Clifton for a public that was increasingly interested in his multi-faceted athletic feats.

Following graduation from DuSable, Clifton attended Xavier College in New Orleans, where he played for a year before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. He served for three years. After being discharged, the six-foot seven-inch, 235-pound Clifton signed with the New York Rens, an all-Black professional team that barnstormed across the United States. In 1948, he signed with the famed Harlem Globetrotters, playing for the team until 1950, when he signed with the New York Knicks of the NBA, becoming the second Black player to sign an NBA contract. He made his debut with the Knicks on November 3, 1950, just four days after Earl Lloyd had broken the NBA’s color barrier. Although a twenty-seven-year-old rookie, Clifton adapted well to the league, leading the Knicks to their first ever appearance in the league championship final. He was instrumental in the team making the NBA finals a total of three times during his tenure.

Overall, Clifton enjoyed an eight-year NBA career during which he averaged ten points and just over eight rebounds a game. His career was also noteworthy for the fact that he was the first Black person to play in the NBA finals, and he was the oldest player (at thirty-four) to make his debut in the All-Star game. He played what he thought would be the final season of his basketball career with the Pistons, which was located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the time the Knicks traded him but had moved to Detroit before what proved to be Clifton’s final year in the league. After retiring from the Pistons, he played a season for the Detroit Clowns baseball team of the Negro Leagues. He played another season of professional basketball in 1961 when the Chicago Majors of the fledgling American Basketball League convinced him to return to the game, but after the league folded in 1962, Clifton retired for good from competitive league basketball. During the next two years, he once again played with the Globetrotters and various traveling teams.

Throughout his career and afterward, Clifton was known for his community involvement and charitable work. The Associated Charities of New York City named one of their Black History Maker Awards the Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton Award, and the New York Knicks renamed their monthly “City Spirit Award,” an accolade that is given to someone in the community who goes above and beyond their normal responsibilities to make the tri-state area better, “The Sweetwater Clifton City Spirit Award.”

As one of the NBA’s first Black players, Clifton navigated a challenging path well and is recognized in the league’s annals as a pioneer. That fact was noted by many NBA stars, including Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, when Clifton was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.

In his final years, Clifton supported himself and his wife, Joan, who died in January 1990, as a cabdriver in Chicago. He had four children.

On August 31, 1990, Clifton was found in the Chicago cab he drove having died from a likely heart attack. He is buried in the Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, a suburb of Chicago.

For additional information:
Demirel, Evin. “Arkansan NBA Pioneer to Be Inducted in Hall of Fame, Featured in Major Motion Film.” Best of Arkansas Sports, April 14, 2014. https://www.bestofarkansassports.com/arkansan-nba-pioneer-to-be-inducted-in-hall-of-fame-featured-in-major-motion-film/ (accessed October 25, 2022).

———. “Honoring Sweetwater: Arkansas Native and NBA Player Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton Finally Gets the Recognition He Deserves.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 19, 2014. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2014/aug/19/honoring-sweetwater/ (accessed October 25, 2022).

Foster, Frank. Sweetwater: A Biography of Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

“Nate ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton.” Chicago 16″ Softball Hall of Fame. https://16inchsoftballhof.com/inductee/nate-sweetwater-clifton/ (accessed October 25, 2022).

“Nathaniel ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton Biography.” JRank Articles. https://biography.jrank.org/pages/2338/Clifton-Nathaniel-Sweetwater.html (accessed October 25, 2022).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Comments

No comments on this entry yet.