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Nathaniel Sweetwater Clifton: You Shouldn’t Forget His Basketball Legacy

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Apart from his attention-grabbing name, which sportswriters complained about, hence the name Nat Clifton, Nathanial Sweetwater Clifton’s large hands were a notable feature throughout his basketball years. 

Additionally, he was a standout player, one of the first black players to feature in the NBA after a successful high school career. Although he never won an NBA Championship, Sweetwater as he was commonly known left an indelible mark in the game. 

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Nathaniel Sweetwater Clifton’s Early Life

Career review of Nathaniel Sweetwater Clifton. Video Credit: NBA Cares

The basketballer was born in England, Arkansas and later moved to Chicago with his family. He got his nickname Sweetwater from his tendency to take soft drinks and his easygoing nature.     

During his high school days, Sweetwater was one of the best basketball players in DuSable High School. From there, he joined Xavier University of Louisiana but took time away from his studies to do military service in World War II. 

On his return, Nathaniel played for the New York Rens, an all-black team, between 1945 and 1947. He also played for the Harlem Globetrotters where he demonstrated his ballhandling skills on the court. 

In 1950, after joining the New York Knicks, Nathaniel Sweetwater was among the first black players to sign an NBA contract. He experienced racial abuse traveling with the team, but had an ally with his coach Joe Lapchick.

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NBA Championships

The Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton Story. Video Credit: JDunlapTV

Despite the racial tension, Sweetwater never lost sight of his game. He was influential in his team, playing 66 games in the regular season and averaging 8.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Sweetwater’s numbers were close to those posed by top ballers of the time, despite his wanting to play a more defensive game.

He helped the New York Knicks win the playoffs against the Syracuse Nationals, making a comeback in game 5 and winning it by 85-83, to take the team to its first NBA finals. 

They contested for the title against the Rochester Royals. However, the team had a bad record against them, so that wasn’t the best way to go into the game. In a best-of-seven game, the Knicks started poorly, losing the first three games. 

However, they overturned the game four results to remain in the contest, Nathaniel Sweetwater’s 14 points and 17 rebounds saw them win the game 79-73.

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By the time game seven came around, the Knicks tied the championship games and there was all to play out for. The Knicks started poorly but regained momentum, tying the game to 69-69.

At the most important moment, Nathaniel Sweetwater Clifton mishandled the ball and the Rochester Royals capitalized on his foul to win the game 79-75.

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After New York Knicks

After an unforgettable first season with the New York Knicks, Sweetwater played for the team until 1957. He played in the championships two more times, in 1952 and 1953. After he left the Knicks, he played for the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Majors after which he retired. 

The basketballer died in 1962 and was later inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Nathaniel Sweetwaters Clifton enjoyed the heights of the game at a time when he was one of the few black people on an NBA court. He seemed to have charmed the fans and remains to be an important figure in the game’s history. 

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Agnes Amondi
Agnes Amondi
Agnes Amondi is a sports enthusiast who enjoys sharing sports knowledge. Over the years, she has also written on different niches, and she now brings that experience at Spotcovery. She writes sports content and also, Arts & Culture, Recipe, Beauty and more.


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