They called the big fella “Sweetwater” for his love of soft drinks. Nathaniel Clifton, who grew up in Little Rock before moving with his family to Chicago, served in the United States Army for three years during World War II, fighting in Europe. Upon his return, he joined the Harlem Globetrotters, and the NBA soon took notice.
Sweetwater was already 27 years old when he was drafted by the Knicks in 1950. The third African-American selected in that draft (after Boston’s Chuck Cooper and Washington’s Earl Lloyd), Clifton became the first black player to sign a contract in the NBA. (Another player, Harold Hunter, actually held that distinction, but Washington released him in training camp and he never played in the league.) Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014, Sweetwater Clifton has been honored since 2005 as the namesake of the Knicks’ monthly “City Spirit” award, given to a deserving community member in the Tri-State area.
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