Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton: the first black player to sign an NBA contract

While the vast majority (nearly 75 percent) of the NBA today is composed of black men, that wasn’t always the case. In 1950, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first black man to sign with an NBA team when he inked a deal with the New York Knicks.

Sweetwater wasn’t only the first under contract in the league, but he was the NBA’s first black star. Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd both entered the NBA as a function of the 1950 NBA Draft, but neither were big personalities nor big performers. Clifton was a big-time talent and a born showman, having entered the league after playing with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Regarding his unique nickname, Clifton told a reporter,

”I got the name when I was a kid, because all I ever wanted to drink was soda pop. You know, sweet water.”

Nat Clifon

Where does Sweetwater rank on the all-time list of great sports nicknames?

Clifton was born in Chicago in 1922, and he played college ball at Xavier University before joining the Globetrotters. The 6’7’’ power forward and center played seven seasons in the league, averaging a solid 10 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.

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Sweetwater did his best work during the 1954-1955 season, when he averaged 13.1 points per game. He made the NBA All-Star team during the 1956-57 season in which he averaged 10.7 points per game. The Knicks made the Finals three times during his career. After a season with the Detroit Pistons, unhappy about his playing time, Sweetwater left the league and went back to playing entertainment ball for the Globetrotters.

Clifton was a hometown hero in Chicago, where he had played at DuSable High School. He returned to the area after a knee injury ended his playing days with the Globetrotters. Lacking any sort of pension from the NBA, Sweetwater drove a cab until his death in 1990 at age 65.

The former New York Knick actually died at the wheel of his cab of an apparent heart attack outside Chicago’s Union Station. Already a member of the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, Clifton was made a member of the NBA Hall of Fame in 2014.

Here’s what his Knicks teammate, Willie Naulls had to say about him at his Hall of Fame induction.

“Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton was a giant of a man physically who was as gentle, compassionate and empathic as anyone I met during my professional basketball career.

He was a pioneer in the integration of the NBA and his intestinal fortitude paved the way for those of us who would follow, even when he had little power of voice and choice.

When I was traded to the Knicks three months into my NBA career, ‘Sweets’ welcomed me with open arms and we discussed what it had meant to be the only, or one of the few, African-American in the league – him with the Knicks and me with the St. Louis Hawks.”

Willie Naulls