Black History Month

Nat Clifton: The first Black player to sign an NBA contract

When retracing the history of the players that broke the NBA's colour barrier, you're likely drawn to names like Earl Lloyd, the first Black player to play in an NBA game, or Chuck Cooper, the first Black player drafted in the NBA.

But a third pioneer in that exact same timeframe was equally as important as his counterparts in helping shape the NBA into the diverse league it is today.

Arkansas-born but Chicago-raised, Nathaniel (Nat) "Sweetwater" Clifton first made a name for himself by dominating the high school level in the basketball hotbed that is the Windy City. The nickname "Sweetwater" spawned from his love for soda pop as a kid.

As a two-sport star playing basketball and baseball at DuSable High School in Chicago, the 6-foot-7, 235-pound power forward and first baseman was destined for greatness at the professional level. His most memorable outing as a high school basketball player came in the state semifinals in 1942, where Clifton scored a state tournament-record 45 points - easily surpassing the previous record of 24 points - to draw the eyes of college scouts.

He attended Xavier University of Louisiana where he played basketball for one season but in 1944, with World War II on-going in Europe, Clifton was drafted into the United States Army, leaving his sports career on pause for three years. Upon returning to the United States in 1947, the 25-year-old was ready to take the next step in his basketball career, joining the famous first all-Black professional basketball dynasty that was the New York Renaissance.

After just one season with the Rens, the Harlem Globetrotters - another famous all-Black pro basketball team - sought out Clifton's talents, giving Sweetwater $10,000 to join their team. The deal made Clifton the highest-paid Black basketball player at that time.

He competed for the Globetrotters for three seasons and remarkably, Clifton was so gifted athletically that in the team's offseason, he played professional baseball for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro League. However, despite his love and talent for both sports, his versatile skill set as a power forward on the basketball court made Sweetwater a desirable target.

In 1950, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the NBA had broken its colour barrier when the Boston Celtics selected the aforementioned Cooper with the No. 14 overall pick. He wasn't the only African American selected in the draft, with the aforementioned Lloyd going No. 100 overall to the Washington Capitols.

Simultaneously, Clifton had just finished his final season with the Globetrotters and the New York Knickerbockers came to Harlem's owner with an offer for the star forward. The Knickerbockers paid the Globetrotters' owner $12,500 for Clifton and when Sweetwater profited $2,500 in the deal, he made history as the first-ever Black player to sign a contract in the NBA.

The NBA's racial progression was shocking given the climate of the timeframe, occurring years before milestone moments in the Civil Rights Movement like Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus (1955) or the Civil Rights Act of 1957 that made it illegal to deny a person of colour the right to vote.

But just because the league was ready for racial integration didn't mean its' team's cities or fans were ready for that step, which lead to all three players dealing with profound racism as they began their NBA careers.

"His team didn't treat him bad, but some of the places he went did," Clifton's daughter Jataun Robinson-Swopes told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears in a story about her father's legacy back in February of 2020. She talked about how Clifton was often forced to stay in a different hotel from his teammates on the road, on top of hearing endless racial slurs from opposing fans.

Even through prejudice and racism, Clifton was immediately successful in the NBA.

The versatile forward averaged a double-double in points and rebounds in two of his first three seasons in the league, playing a key role in leading New York to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances to start his career. In fact, Clifton was also the first Black player to play in the Finals when the Knickerbockers reached the championship round in 1951.

And even though Clifton was a fantastic player with New York, years later, he spoke on how he felt the colour of his skin put a ceiling on his potential as an NBA player.

"I could score. I was an offensive player with the Globies and at Xavier," Clifton told The Associated Press, according to Spears' story on The Undefeated. "But in the NBA, because I was big and strong, I started getting matched against guys like [George] Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit and Ed McCauley.

"Besides, there weren't any plays for me. Being the only Black on the team, I always figured the reason I didn't get the ball more is because the other fellows were looking out for themselves, figuring what they were going to do to stick with the team."

Sweetwater still had a great career, averaging 10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game over seven seasons with the Knickerbockers, tallying one All-Star appearance in his final season with the team in 1957. He was traded to the then-Fort Wayne Pistons following his All-Star year, playing one season in a new city before retiring from the NBA. He returned to the Globetrotters for two seasons after that, but a knee injury ended Clifton's playing days for good.

Clifton passed away in 1990 and 24 years later, he would finally be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for his contributions as a trailblazer in the league's racial integration.

While it's common to be drawn to the NBA's biggest stars when thinking about players that have left a lasting impact on the game, just know that pioneers like Lloyd, Cooper and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton paved the way for the league to become what it is today.

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