Earl Lloyd is credited as the first African-American to ever play in an NBA game, but Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton suited up for the New York Knicks just four days later.
Something as menial as the color of one’s skin is an afterthought today’s athletics, but as we all know, things weren’t always this way. Jackie Robinson instantly became a pioneer when he stepped on to a Major League baseball field in 1947, but the NBA was in need of somebody to liberate their sport too. For New Yorkers, who were at the forefront of athletic integration, “Sweetwater” Clifton was that guy.
For Clifton, it was a long journey. Upon returning home from fighting in World War II, he joined the New York Renaissance, an all-black basketball team that traveled the U.S. playing both amateur and professional teams. Shortly after, he was invited to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. Clifton played there for the better part of three years, and even gave baseball a shot, suiting up for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues during the 1949 offseason. It was with the Globetrotters that Clifton gained enough notoriety from NBA scouts to warrant interest in playing professionally, and on May 24, 1950, he became the second African-American player to sign an NBA contract.
“Sweetwater” would go on to enjoy eight-year career in the NBA, playing seven of those with the Knicks. The ballhandling that stuck out so much when he was playing with the Globetrotters translated seamlessly to the professional league, and he even made an All-Star Game appearance in 1957, when he averaged 10.7 points and 7.8 rebounds. At the time, he was the NBA’s oldest ever All-Star, at age 34. In today’s game, that would make someone like Jordan Hill (8.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game) close to All-Star status, but Clifton played in an offensively methodical era where averages of ten and seven were rock solid. He finished his career with averages of 10.0 points and 8.2 rebounds, and 10.3 and 8.5 as a Knick.
However, the impression that Clifton left on the NBA wouldn’t end there. Well after his playing days, he continued to go above and beyond. Clifton’s off the court generosity inspired the Knicks to rename their “City Spirit Award,” which honors unselfishness in the community, to the “Sweetwater Clifton City Spirit Award” in 2005. All the basketball accolades in the world don’t add up to something like that, and that’s why Nat Sweetwater Clifton will go down as a legend in New York, both on and off the court