Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton: The Trailblazer Who Revolutionized Basketball

Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton became the first African American player to earn an NBA contract when he joined the New York Knicks in 1950. This historic event ended racial segregation in the league and provided future African American players with opportunities.


I have always been enthralled by the thrill and grace of the game of basketball as a genuine fan. Basketball has a way of captivating its followers like no other sport, from the high dunks to the razor-sharp passes. I was engrossed in the passion around the Bulls’ winning their last title in 1998 since I had just relocated to Chicago then, a city with a strong basketball culture. The town still vibrated with the thrill of the Bulls’ last victory, an incredible era when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman ruled supreme. Although I greatly appreciate basketball and am well-versed in the local scene, I had never heard of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton until a few weeks ago.

Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton: Life and Basketball Journey

Clifton, born in England, Arkansas, was named “Sweetwater” as a young child due to his love for soft drinks and laid-back personality. His family relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where he excelled in baseball and basketball at DuSable High School and eventually graduated in 1942. He studied at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans before enlisting in the American Army and fought for three years in Europe during World War II.

Beginning of his Career

Clifton dominated his opponents when playing basketball for Chicago’s DuSable High School. He stood over 6-foot-7 and weighed 235 pounds. He could pick up and palm a basketball as easily as others could handle a tennis ball with hands that measured ten inches wide.

Nat 'Sweetwater' Clifton

While at DuSable High School, he scored 45 points, breaking the previous tournament record of 24 points, in the city championship semifinals during his senior year of 1942. The Chicago Daily News ranked him among Illinois’s top two high school basketball players. He also participated in softball on a squad dubbed the Gas House Gang.

Clifton joined the all-black professional basketball team known as the New York Rens, which travelled nationwide after the war. He was asked to join the Harlem Globetrotters. He played from the summer of 1948 until the spring of 1950 and was known for having enormous hands that required a size 14 glove.

Breaking Barriers in Basketball’s NBA

Clifton’s breaking of the color barrier changed the game and gave others the courage to follow their aspirations in the face of hardship. He opened the door for future NBA greats like Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain, who would change the league and leave a lasting impression.

Contribution to the Game

Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton excelled in various positions and was a skillful and adaptable player. He could dominate in the forward and center positions due to his height of 6 feet 7 inches and exceptional quickness. The game was significantly impacted by Clifton’s playing style, which was highlighted by his remarkable rebounding skills, strength, and speed.

His contributions went beyond his talent on the court. Clifton was renowned for his professionalism, leadership, and good sportsmanship. He prioritized the accomplishments of his teammates and always played the game honestly. Beyond his actions on the court, Clifton was a role model for young basketball players and personified the spirit of the game.

Impact and Legacies

Beyond his achievements on the court, Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton left behind a lasting legacy. His tenacity and bravery enabled subsequent generations of African American athletes to succeed in the NBA. Racial boundaries were dismantled by Clifton’s pioneering trip, which also brought about a metamorphosis that altered the landscape of professional basketball for all time.

His influence is felt not only in the NBA but also throughout society. Clifton rose beyond racial discrimination and became a beacon of inspiration and hope for underserved groups. He demonstrated that talent and merit should be valued regardless of race and that diversity benefits sports and society.


Basketball history will always remember Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton’s historic signing as the first African American to land an NBA contract. His journey and accomplishments are a monument to the strength of tenacity, resiliency, and overcoming obstacles. Even today, Clifton’s contributions to the sport and enduring influence on the league’s inclusivity and diversity are felt. Let us always remember Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton’s pioneering legacy, whose historic signing changed the game of basketball forever, as we celebrate the accomplishments of current African American NBA stars.

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisement -

Latest Articles