Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton was born on October 13, 1922 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Clifton is noted for being a multi-sport athlete who was among the first African Americans to play in the NBA. He was born Clifton Nathaniel according to his state records.
Clifton received the nickname “Sweetwater” as a boy because of his love of soft drinks. However, further research showed that Clifton’s family was not able to purchase soft drinks often, so Clifton would fill soft drink bottles with water and sugar in order to have something sweet to drink.
His family moved to Chicago, where he became an outstanding basketball and baseball player at DuSable High School. Standing over 6-foot, 7-inches tall, he dominated his opponents. He graduated in 1942 and later attended Xavier University of Louisiana. However, that didn’t last long because he was called to serve with the United States Army for three years, fighting in Europe during World War II.
After the war, Sweetwater Clifton joined the New York Rens, an all-black professional basketball team that toured throughout the United States. His trademark was his rather large hands that required a size 14 glove. He later joined the Harlem Globetrotters, and as he became known for his exceptional ball-handling ability, the NBA Knicks offered him a contract. In 1957, Clifton was part of a multi-player trade between the Knicks and the Detroit Pistons; after one season in Detroit, he retired from basketball.
In the summer of 1958, he joined the Detroit Clowns baseball team in the Negro Leagues, along with his former Harlem Globetrotters teammate, Reece “Goose” Tatum. After a knee injury, he retired from playing sports. In 1978, he was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. After retiring from his sports career, he became a taxi driver and worked until his death in 1990.