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Nathaniel Clifton

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Nathaniel Clifton

Nathaniel Clifton
No. 19, 8, 24
Center / Forward
Personal information
Born (1922-10-13)October 13, 1922
Little Rock, Arkansas
Died August 31, 1990(1990-08-31) (aged 67)
Chicago, Illinois
Nationality American
Listed height 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m)
Listed weight 225 lb (102 kg)
Career information
High school DuSable (Chicago, Illinois)
College Xavier (Louisiana) (1942–1943)
Pro career 1945–1961
Career history
1945‒1947 New York Rens
1947‒1950 Harlem Globetrotters
1950‒1956 New York Knicks
1956‒1957 Detroit Pistons
1961 Chicago Majors
Career highlights and awards
Career NBA statistics
Points 5,444
Rebounds 4,469
Assists 1,369
Stats at
Basketball Hall of Fame as player

Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton (October 13, 1922 – August 31, 1990) was an American multi-sport athlete best known as one of the first African Americans to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Early life

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, according to the Social Security Administration death records, he was born Clifton Nathaniel. Clifton claimed to have been 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 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 signing a contract with an NBA team.

NBA career

On May 24, 1950, Clifton became the second African-American player to sign an NBA contract.[1] He played his first game for the New York Knicks four days after the debut of Washington Capitols's Earl Lloyd, the first black player to appear in an NBA game.[6] 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 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 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.[7]

On his death in 1990, Sweetwater Clifton was interred in the Restvale Cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Alsip.

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

See also


  1. ^ Harold Hunter was the first, signing with the Washington Capitols on April 26, 1950.[1][2] However, he was cut from the team during training camp and did not play professionally.[3] Some sources conflict and list Clifton as the first African-American to sign in the NBA.[4][5]


  1. ^ Howell, Dave. "Six Who Paved the Way". Archived from the original on April 23, 2013. 
  2. ^ Wagner, Jeremy. "9.Firsts For African-Americans". Archived from the original on April 23, 2013. 
  3. ^ McDowell, Sam (2013-03-09). "Sumner grad Harold Hunter, first African-American to sign with NBA team, dies at 86".  
  4. ^ "NBA's Color Line Is Broken". Archived from the original on February 22, 2012. 
  5. ^ Spears, Marc J. (April 23, 2009). "Chicago has long history of courtship". Boston Globe. Archived from the original on April 23, 2013. 
  6. ^ 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 22, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Chicago 16" Softball Hall of Fame:Nate "Sweetwater" Clifton". Retrieved 2012-01-21. 
  8. ^ "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 February 15, 2014. 

External links

  • Career statistics and player information from
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