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Steve Aschburner

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Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton (right) was the first African-American to sign an NBA contract.
NBA Photo Library/Getty Images

Sweetwater's tale of NBA integration to hit silver screen


Posted Jan 18 2010 7:10AM

Truth be told, Martin Guigui had an ulterior motive when he took a detour on his drive from Burlington, Vt., to New York to play a gig with his band. This was in April 1996, back in his days as a professional musician. "It also gave me a chance to visit a real pretty girl I knew who lived not far from there," Guigui said recently, laughing.

But he had seen a billboard along Rte. 91, too, advertising the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. So as a lifelong hoops fan -- his father Efrain was a symphony orchestra conductor who took him to some championship-era Knicks games at Madison Square Garden -- with a few hours to burn, Guigui veered toward the game's shrine. As he walked through the museum, though, a piece of his favorite team's history seemed conspicuous in its absence.

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There was nothing to be found, he said, on Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton, the first African-American to sign an NBA contract and one of the league's black pioneers in its integration year of 1950-51.

That struck Guigui as wrong, given how pivotal that season was for pro basketball and, by extension, the culture. All thanks to Clifton, Chuck Cooper (first black player to be drafted), Earl Lloyd (first black player to appear in an NBA game) and Hank DeZonie, who carried with varying degrees of success in 1950-51 the same flag Jackie Robinson lugged by his lonesome in 1947 in breaking baseball's color barrier.

Fast-forward 14 years: Now Guigui is established in Hollywood as a filmmaker. He has written, acted, composed, produced and directed, working in one or more capacities with the likes of Faye Dunaway, Tom Skerritt, Jacqueline Bisset and Jonathan Winters. Among his directing credits are the romantic comedy "Changing Hearts" (2002), a musical fantasy "Swing" (2003) and "Cattle Call" (2006) in the National Lampoon film series. Throughout, the native of Argentina has nurtured his vision for a Clifton story from a book proposal to a possible documentary to what he calls now his passion project: "Sweetwater."

With a little luck, some stable financing and the blessing of the NBA, Guigui's project could be shot, edited and distributed in time for the 50th anniversary season of Clifton's, Cooper's, Lloyd's and DeZonie's excellent (and brave) adventure.

"If somebody would have told me it would take 14 years. Man, how crazy is that?" Guigui said. "I realized this was a great New York story, kind of an ode to the Mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden. Little by little, I developed it. I did tons of research. I interviewed ballplayers who were still alive, reporters. It was just a process of trying to accumulate the truth, trying to find out what really happened."

About five years ago, through various contacts and acquaintances, the NBA got involved. Guigui met with now-deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who directed him to Zelda Spoelstra, dubbed by Guigui as "the gatekeeper of historical accuracy." A revered longtime employee at NBA headquarters, Spoelstra had been hired in 1951 as commissioner Maurice Podoloff's administrative assistant. So she'd had a ringside seat to the league's integration.

"We began working closely on the screenplay," the writer-director said. "They brought a lot of information to it -- my mantra was 'keep it true' -- and they helped me hone in on that."

David Denenberg, senior vice president of legal and business affairs for NBA Entertainment, has handled most of the recent contact with Guigui.

"He certainly has been very passionate about this project," Denenberg said. "Martin has been good to work with in terms of the authenticity suggestions we had. It's a great story. It's one that, it will be nice if it ever gets told. My last conversation with Martin was, they had found some additional funding and it was moving forward."

Clifton, for the uninitiated, was a 6-foot-6 center-forward who grew up in Chicago, attended Xavier University in New Orleans and was playing for the Harlem Globetrotters when the Knicks found themselves in short supply of big men. He was said to have extremely long arms, massive hands, good leaping ability and strength, and a nose for rebounding and defense. Clifton reportedly yearned to give up the Globetrotters' heavy road schedule and workload -- this was before the Washington Generals were created as the Trotters' nightly patsies, so the various teams they faced actually tried hard to beat them -- and earn a little more than the $600 monthly or so that Harlem team owner Abe Saperstein paid.

College basketball already was integrated, so it seemed more a matter of when rather than if the NBA would follow. Still, it took the right players at the right time.

"Sweetwater Clifton was someone who helped revolutionize the game," Guigui said. "It was a spectacular, barrier-breaking year. What Earl Lloyd said one time was, 'The three of us did something very important for the game and for the culture.' "

Lloyd, a forward from West Virginia State, was drafted by the Washington Capitols in the ninth round and made his rookie debut on Halloween 1950, one night before Cooper took the court with Boston. The 6-foot-5 player, nicknamed Moon Fixer, averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in nine seasons and, after a military term and shift to Syracuse, became the first African-American to win an NBA title (1955).

Cooper, the Celtics' second-round pick from Duquesne, averaged 6.7 points and 5.9 rebounds in six NBA seasons (and is not to be confused with Charles T. Cooper, who starred for the all-black New York Renaissance in the 1930s and was enshrined at the Hall in 1977).

Clifton, already 28 by the time he reached the NBA, averaged 10.0 points and 8.2 rebounds. Much of it was on raw ability, because he said later he felt hamstrung by coach Joe Lapchick's style and teammates who played too "straight."

"Sweetwater would always argue that he was the African-American who changed the game," Guigui said. "He was an incredible athlete and a charming guy, soft-spoken. But on the court, he was an animal, a force to be reckoned with. Some of the footage that we've researched and passed onto our actors to study, this guy could throw a ball against a backboard, jump up and slam it. That dunk Tracy McGrady did a few All-Star games ago, we have footage of Sweetwater doing that in the '50s."

Then there was the off-court drama that swirled around the NBA's black pioneer players. "It was a time in this country when an African-American couldn't walk into a restaurant or a hotel and be given a fair shake," Guigui said.

Like a lot of commercial operations, the NBA wasn't listening only to its social conscience either.

"Ultimately, it was a 6-5 vote -- there were some owners who didn't understand and fought it vehemently," he said. "It's no secret -- and we have the minutes of those meetings in 1950 -- that there were people putting their fists down, saying, 'You're going to ruin this game' by letting black players play in this league. The word 'black' wasn't in play yet -- it was 'Negro,' it was 'colored.'

"It might have been political pressure. Or it might have been [Knicks owner] Ned Irish saying, 'I'm going to pull the Knicks out (of the league), then what do you got? The Fort Wayne Pistons?' But ultimately, the NBA did the right thing."

Through the project's false starts, Guigui has tried to hold together his cast and crew, including Oscar-nominated cinematographer and frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator Jack N. Green. Actors include James Caan as Irish, Bruce McGill as Podoloff, Ed Lauter as Lapchick and Smokey Robinson as Sweetwater's father, with Danny DeVito a possibility to play Saperstein.

Casting the lead role was trickier, of course, because of the basketball scenes. Nothing sinks a sports movie faster than lousy game action, yet a director who opts for a true athlete invariably gives up something on the thespian side. Finally, after much searching, Guigui found a leading man who wouldn't require that compromise.

"I auditioned, over the course of two years on both coasts, close to 300 basketball players," he said. "I also had players come from Europe, from South America. And Wood Harris' gifts as an actor and his athletic ability give him the tools to play the role authentically with no 'stunt player.' Wood will play basketball because he's that good and, as an actor, his chops are phenomenal."

Harris probably is best known for his role as Avon Barksdale in the HBO series, "The Wire." Lloyd will be played by Caleeb Pinkett, Cooper by Jerrod Paige. But then, "Sweetwater" will require a lot of players and Guigui, a 10-year veteran player in the show-biz centric E League in L.A., said he and his staff sifted through nearly 700 prospects.

"You can imagine what we were looking for: A lot of white guys, not in great shape with no tattoos," he said. "That got rid of about half of them."

The training and choreography of the hoops action is being handled by SportsArc, a company that makes game play look as real as possible for film and television ("Semi-Pro," "Friday Night Lights"). Then the onus is on Guigui to make it all look real and athletic, even in 1950s terms. After all, he estimated that about 25 percent of "Sweetwater" will be basketball scenes, a portion that is bigger than it might seem.

Guigui's solution for making the court footage look "organic" and flow? The first time he says "Action!" for a scene, the actors will simply start hooping. Then Guigui will call "Action!" again, signaling the start of the scene and any dialogue or dramatics. "We'll film it all with multiple cameras," he said, so sequences don't look staged or static. "I've seen it work already in rehearsals," Guigui said.

The goal for now is to call "Action!" for real, for once, on this movie. Guigui has, he believes, the financing in place for his $12 million budget. The NBA, while not providing funding, is on board with licensing and marketing. Guigui hopes to start shooting in L.A. in March or April, with sneak previews by the end of the year and an optimistic release perhaps during Black History Month in 2011.

Late in our phone chat, I asked him to name both his favorite basketball film and the one he considers to be best. His answers: "Hoop Dreams" and "Hoosiers," respectively. "I hope some day I can say `Sweetwater' to both of those," Guigui added.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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