Sweetwater: Telling the Untold Story of Nat Clifton, the First Black Player in the NBA

Hard to believe from today’s perspective, but back then it was a matter of course: the National Basketball Association (NBA) only allowed white players in the teams up until the 1940s. The film “Sweetwater”, which tells the story of Nat Clifton, is all the more important.

This was chosen in 1950 as the first black player in one of the then 18 teams. His nickname was “Sweetwater” because his favorite drink was water with a little sugar. A Christian production company created a memorial to the believing basketball player, who died almost unknown in 1990, with the film “Sweetwater”.

Photo: Briarcliff Entertainment“Sweetwater” was released in the USA in April

It wasn’t actually a real basketball team that coach Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak, known from “The Usual Suspects”) drove around the country in his old bus. The “Harlem Globetrotters,” he invented, consisted entirely of black basketball players who performed slapstick tricks in front of a paying audience. Actually all sports talents, but they were not allowed to use their skills in the basketball league NBA. One stood out from the start: Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the top black player in college.

One day the Globetrotters played an NBA pro team – and they won. What’s more, the black players made their white counterparts look like beginners with their well-established routines. Her basketball style seemed light-footed like a dance.

Like all black people at the time, black basketball players experience everyday racism. The film shows how the black professionals have to perform like in a kind of traveling circus for little money. At night they sleep on the seats of their old tour bus. The team gets no petrol at the gas station and no rooms in the completely empty hotel. Her Jewish manager Abe Saperstein, who knows what discrimination is, fights for her as best he can.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t omit some superfluous stereotypes about Jews; Coach Saperstein is mainly concerned with watching his money, constantly calculating how much this and that costs and negotiating deals for the players as if they were cows in the market.

“God gave you these hands as a gift”

Finally, NBA’s New York Knicks manager Ned Irish caught a glimpse of “Sweetwater” Clifton. He really wants the player on his team. But the rules of the NBA speak against it. And so begins a battle between Irish and coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven) on the one hand and the administration of the NBA on the other.

Amazingly, the league boss is played by none other than Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss (“Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). The film can also come up with other well-known stars, even if only in supporting roles. For example, Jim Caviezel, known as Jesus from “The Passion of the Christ,” plays a sports journalist who is only seen briefly. Eric Roberts, the brother of Julia Roberts, known among other things from “The Dark Knight”, plays a racist gas station attendant.

Photo: Briarcliff EntertainmentClifton played for the New York Knicks

One day in 1950, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton made history not only in film: At the age of 28, he became the first black man to sign a contract in the NBA, breaking through a wall. Immediately afterwards, many other team managers also wanted to add black players to their teams.

Despite this groundbreaking event in sports history, Nat Clifton remained unknown for a long time. And with it the fact that this player was deeply religious. It’s only been a few years since he’s been remembered. Faithful film producer Darren Moorman told the Christian Post, “We thought now was the time to tell his story.”

Time to tell his story

Born in Arkansas in 1922, Clifton grew up in poverty. He picked so much cotton with his parents that his hands bled. In a related scene relevant to the rest of the film, his mother tells him, “God gave you these hands as a gift. Use them for something good. You were created for a higher purpose.” The adult Clifton looks at his hands more often later in the film and remembers those words.

Actor Everett Osborne, who portrays Sweetwater, used to play basketball professionally. And like Sweetwater, he’s a devout Christian. The scene with his mother carries the whole film, Osborne said in an interview with the Christian Post.

“Those words carried his whole life. But it also carries the life of every human being. It is about the divine purpose in our lives. We are all created for a specific higher purpose. Luckily, Sweetwater was able to recognize that at a young age.”

Clifton was only able to overcome the many adversities in his life through his faith. He fought as a soldier in Europe during World War II and even as a top player he was discriminated against most of the time because of the color of his skin. “But because of his faith, he was able to persevere and make his way,” says the actor. “He believed in a truth he could not yet see.”

Celebrities in supporting roles

The 118-minute feature film was released in American cinemas in April 2023, and it can now be seen – at least for an American audience – on well-known streaming portals such as Apple TV, Amazon Prime and Vudu.

The performance of the main actors and the screenplay may not always reach Oscar level, but the many experienced actors here and there who raise the level are all the more gratifying. Perhaps the film could have mentioned at some point that even the game of basketball itself was invented by Christians from the YMCA (Young People’s Christian Association, YMCA) in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Nat Clifton did not receive a pension from the NBA after retiring from the sport. So he was forced to work as a taxi driver in Chicago. He did that until his death. He died on August 31, 1990 at the wheel of his cab near Chicago’s main train station. Only posthumously, in 2014, was Clifton inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, basketball’s most famous hall of fame. In 2021, the trophy for the Atlantic Division winner was named after him.

2023-08-30 14:53:37
#Film #black #NBA #player


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