Leading The Way: The Knicks’ Sweetwater

Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton

October 13, 1922 – August 31, 1990

 

Believe it or not, I am a Knicks fan. And despite this train-wreck

of a season, I still tune in with my League Pass and watch as many of their games

as possible. Don’t ask me why.

 

During one of the time outs of the Knicks/Wizards game last

week, I saw a commercial for an interesting documentary that MSG (the Knicks’

main TV network) was premiering named Lapchick

and Sweetwater Breaking Barriers.

 

The story focuses on a former Knick named Nat “Sweetwater”

Clifton, who in 1950 became the first African-American to sign an NBA contract. While most people know about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in

baseball, few are aware (myself included) of Sweetwater’s story.

 

As we all know, it is Black History Month, and it is very

important to recognize some of the great African-Americans that have paved the

way for so many. According to a recent study, the NBA is 75 percent Black – the

highest in the big four sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL).

 

So, it is hard to imagine that 57 years ago, there wasn’t a single

Black player before a courageous Knicks’ coach named Joe Lapchick signed

Clifton.

 

Nicknamed Sweetwater for his love for soda’s as a kid, Clifton was an incredible

athlete, playing both basketball and baseball star while at Xavier. After

college, Sweetwater played in a Black basketball league as well as Negro League

Baseball. Standing 6-8 with superior handles, he was invited to play for the

world famous Harlem Globetrotters.

 

It was Sweetwater’s performance as a Globetrotter that

caught Lapchick’s eye and encouraged him to sign the 27-year-old phenom. The

move was definitely not a popular choice, and both Sweetwater and Lapchick were

subjected to racial and derogatory remarks.

 

Regardless, Clifton went on to have a nice NBA career. He

was a member of the ’51 Knicks team that went to their first NBA Finals in

franchise history. In his eight seasons in the League, he averaged close to a

double-double. And at age 34, Clifton

made history by becoming the oldest first time All Star in history – a record

that still stands today.

 

Although I have not seen the documentary yet, I have read it

is good. It helps viewers understand how different life was back then and how

tough things were for Black people.

 

No matter what your heritage, if you are a basketball fan,

you should know your history. It is pioneers like Sweetwater and coach Lapchick

who allowed guys like Jordan, Magic, Wilt and LeBron to grace us with their

games.

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