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You Tube Gold: Sweetwater Clifton

A mostly forgotten pioneer

Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton is the first Black to play in the p
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 02: Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton is the first Black to play in the professional basketball league.
Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The NBA is much younger than the NFL for MLB. The NBA was founded in 1946, essentially the same time as Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton was one of the first two African-Americans to be drafted in 1950 (Chuck Cooper was the first).

Also a baseball player, Clifton was 6-8 and by the standards of the day an exceptional ball handler. He also had huge hands.

Before the NBA was an option, Clifton’s career represented a transition in basketball and baseball history: he started with the New York Rens, then spent time with the Harlem Globetrotters. He also played baseball in the waning days of the Negro Leagues.

He spent the bulk of his NBA career with the New York Knicks until they traded him to the Fort Wayne Pistons just before they moved to Detroit. After that he went back to baseball briefly with the Detroit Clowns, then returned to basketball for one season in the short-lived ABL.

He was later named to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

When you see this video, it’s striking how different the game was. He’s clearly athletic, but still has a set shot. He is a remarkable passer but his game - and everyone else’s - is about finesse.

And Sweetwater? It was because he loved soft drinks.