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Nathaniel "Nat" Clifton
Position(s) Center, Forward
Jersey #(s) 19, 8, 24
Listed height 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m)
Listed weight 225 lb (102 kg)
Born October 13, 1922(1922-10-13)
Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.
Died August 31, 1990 (aged 67)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Career information
Year(s) 1945–1961
College Xavier (LA)
Professional team(s)

New York Rens (1945–1947)
Harlem Globetrotters (1947–1950)
* New York Knicks (1950–1956)
* Detroit Pistons (1956–1957)
Chicago Majors (ABL), 1961

Career stats (NBA)
Points     5,444
Rebounds     4,469
Assists     1,369
Stats @ Basketball-Reference.com
Career highlights and awards
NBA All Star 1957, with Detroit Pistons

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

Contents

Early life

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, (according to the Social Security Administration death records, he was born Clifton Nathaniel. Clifton was 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 for his country 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 becoming the first African American player to sign a contract with an NBA team.

NBA career

Already 27 when he made his debut as a member of the New York Knicks, in his first season Clifton helped lead the team to its first-ever appearance in the NBA finals. 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 for good.

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 re-named 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.

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

See also

References

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