Nat Clifton

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Nat Clifton
Personal information
Born(1922-10-13)October 13, 1922
England, Arkansas, U.S.
DiedAugust 31, 1990(1990-08-31) (aged 67)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Listed height6 ft 8 in (2.03 m)
Listed weight225 lb (102 kg)
Career information
High schoolDuSable (Chicago, Illinois)
CollegeXavier (Louisiana) (1942–1943)
Playing career1945–1961
PositionPower forward
Number19, 8, 24
Career history
1945–1947New York Rens
1947–1950Harlem Globetrotters
19501957New York Knicks
1957–1958Detroit Pistons
1961Chicago Majors
Career highlights and awards
Career NBA statistics
Points5,444 (10.0 ppg)
Rebounds4,469 (8.2 rpg)
Assists1,367 (2.5 apg)
Stats Edit this at Wikidata at
Stats at
Basketball Hall of Fame

Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton (born Clifton Nathaniel;[1] October 13, 1922 – August 31, 1990) was an American professional basketball and baseball player.[2] He is best known as one of the first African Americans to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).


Early life[edit]

Born in England, Arkansas, as Clifton Nathaniel,[3] he was given the "Sweetwater" nickname as a boy because of his love of soft drinks and his easy disposition.[4] His family moved to Chicago, Illinois, when he was eight.[3] Clifton became an outstanding basketball and baseball player at DuSable High School; he reversed his two names when sportswriters complained that the last name Nathaniel was too long to fit in their headlines.[3] He graduated in 1942.

Clifton attended Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and then served with the United States Army for three years, fighting in Europe during World War II.

Early career[edit]

After the war, 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 signing a contract with an NBA team.

NBA career[edit]

On May 24, 1950, Clifton became the second African-American player to sign an NBA contract.[a] He played his first game for the New York Knicks on November 4, four days after the debut of Washington Capitols player Earl Lloyd, the first black player to appear in an NBA game.[10] Already 27 years old when he made his debut, Clifton in his first season helped lead the team to its first-ever appearance in the NBA finals, losing in game seven. 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 a first time All-Star.[11]

In 1957, Clifton was part of a multi-player trade between the Knicks and the Fort Wayne 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.

Clifton died at age 67 on August 31, 1990, in Chicago.[4] He was interred in the Restvale Cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Alsip.[citation needed]


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 renamed 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.

Clifton, who played softball for the Brown Bombers and Capitol Records team of the Daddy-O Daylie League, was also inducted into Chicago 16-inch softball Hall of Fame.[12]

On February 14, 2014, Clifton was announced as a 2014 inductee by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He formally entered the Hall as a contributor on August 8.[13][14]

Sweetwater, a film on Clifton's life, had been in planning with Sunset Pictures since 2007 and was released on April 14, 2023.[15][16]

NBA career statistics[edit]

  GP Games played   GS  Games started  MPG  Minutes per game
 FG%  Field goal percentage  3P%  3-point field goal percentage  FT%  Free throw percentage
 RPG  Rebounds per game  APG  Assists per game  SPG  Steals per game
 BPG  Blocks per game  PPG  Points per game  Bold  Career high

Regular season[edit]

1950–51 New York 65 .322 .532 7.6 2.5 8.6
1951–52 New York 62 33.9 .335 .664 11.8 3.4 10.6
1952–53 New York 70 35.7 .343 .583 10.9 3.3 10.6
1953–54 New York 72 30.3 .368 .628 7.3 2.4 9.6
1954–55 New York 72 33.2 .386 .683 8.5 2.8 13.1
1955–56 New York 64 24.0 .394 .707 6.0 2.4 8.8
1956–57 New York 71 31.4 .377 .673 7.8 2.3 10.7
1957–58 Detroit 68 21.1 .363 .623 5.9 1.1 7.7
Career 544 30.0 .361 .633 8.2 2.5 10.0
All-Star 1 23.0 .364 11.0 3.0 8.0


1951 New York 14 .347 .391 9.8 3.3 7.1
1952 New York 14 33.0 .293 .711 9.5 2.4 9.4
1953 New York 11 36.8 .395 .638 12.7 3.5 12.0
1954 New York 4 31.3 .296 .529 9.8 1.5 6.3
1955 New York 3 36.7 .385 .792 7.7 4.3 19.7
1958 Detroit 7 10.6 .367 .750 3.3 0.6 4.0
Career 53 30.2 .348 .624 9.3 2.7 9.0

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harold Hunter was the first, signing with the Washington Capitols on April 26, 1950.[5][6] However, he was cut from the team during training camp and did not play professionally.[7] Some sources conflict and list Clifton as the first African-American to sign in the NBA.[8][9]


  1. ^ According to the Social Security Administration death records
  2. ^ Lederer, Richard (March 1, 1994). "The names of the games". The Telegraph.
  3. ^ a b c "Clifton, Nathaniel "Sweetwater"". Retrieved July 12, 2023.
  4. ^ a b "Sweetwater' Clifton, ex-Harlem Globetrotter, dead at 63". UPI. September 1, 1990. Retrieved June 23, 2021.
  5. ^ Howell, Dave. "Six Who Paved the Way". Archived from the original on March 11, 2013.
  6. ^ Wagner, Jeremy. "9.Firsts For African-Americans". Archived from the original on November 10, 2013.
  7. ^ McDowell, Sam (March 9, 2013). "Sumner grad Harold Hunter, first African-American to sign with NBA team, dies at 86". Kansas City Star. Archived from the original on March 12, 2013. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  8. ^ "NBA's Color Line Is Broken". Archived from the original on February 18, 2012.
  9. ^ Spears, Marc J. (April 23, 2009). "Chicago has long history of courtship". Boston Globe. Archived from the original on February 23, 2014.
  10. ^ Araton, Harvey (February 19, 2012). "He Was a Knicks Pioneer, and He Has Proof". The New York Times. p. SP1. Archived from the original on February 14, 2019.
  11. ^ "Kyle Korver to replace Dwyane Wade, become Hawks' fourth All-Star". Archived from the original on February 11, 2015. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
  12. ^ "Nate "Sweetwater" Clifton". 16" Softball Hall of Fame. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
  13. ^ "Five Direct-Elect Members Announced for the Class of 2014 by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame" (Press release). Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. February 14, 2014. Retrieved June 23, 2021.
  14. ^ Demirel, Evin (August 19, 2014). "Honoring Sweetwater". Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Retrieved June 23, 2021.
  15. ^ Lang, Brent (October 11, 2022). "Briarcliff Entertainment Buys Sweetwater, Drama About Pioneering African American NBA Player (Exclusive)". Variety. Archived from the original on December 30, 2022. Retrieved February 19, 2023.
  16. ^ Lexi Feinberg (December 9, 2006). "Martin Guigui Dives Into Sweetwater". CINEMABLEND. Retrieved April 11, 2023.

External links[edit]