'Sweetwater' Is the Story of the Player Who Broke the Color Barrier in Basketball


Apr. 13 2023, Published 12:23 p.m. ET

Sweetwater Movie Still
Source: Briarcliff Entertainment

Although almost everyone knows the name Jackie Robinson, far fewer people remember Nathaniel Clifton, the man who broke the color barrier in basketball three years after Jackie accomplished the same feat in baseball.

Now, a new movie is attempting to rectify that history by telling Nathaniel's story, and many are wondering whether the movie is based on real events.

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Is the 2023 movie 'Sweetwater' based on a true story?

Sweetwater is inspired by the true story of Nathaniel Clifton. It stars Everett Osbourne, Jeremy Piven, Richard Dreyfuss, Carey Elwes, and James Caan. It's set to hit theaters on April 14, and will chronicle Nathaniel's journey from the Harlem Globetrotters to becoming one of the first players to sign with an NBA team. It was written and directed by Martin Guigui, who said he came up with the story after wondering what it would have been like to be the only Black player on the court.

Sweetwater movie still
Source: Briarcliff Entertainment
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In an interview with the Burlington Free Press, Martin explained that he had heard an announcer describe a player as "the only white man on the court."

"It just hit me — the only white guy — that’s fascinating. When was it that it was the other way around? When was it there was ‘the only Black guy’?” Martin explained, adding that he spent 28 years researching every aspect of Nathaniel's life.

Who was Nathaniel Clifton?

Nathaniel Clifton was one of the first players to break the color line in basketball, and was the second Black player to sign an NBA contract. He made his NBA debut with the New York Knicks four days after Earl Lloyd became the first Black player to play in the NBA. He was recruited to play in the NBA in large part because he displayed such exceptional ball handling skill during his time with the Harlem Globetrotters.

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During his first season with the Knicks, he helped lead the team to its first ever NBA finals, where they ultimately lost in game 7. He played in the NBA for a total of eight seasons before leaving the NBA to play baseball and eventually to join the American Basketball League. He was also named to the 1957 NBA All-Star player, becoming the oldest player in history to join the team at the time at age 34.

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Nathaniel, who was often called Nat, was also known as Sweetwater because of his love for soft drinks and his easy-going disposition. Unlike Jackie Robinson, Nathaniel was one of several players who integrated in the NBA as part of a broader concerted effort by the league to break the color barrier. Now, the NBA is one of the most diverse sports in the country, with players from all over the world.

Unfortunately, the New York Knicks are just as unlucky now as they were when Nathaniel was a member of the team. They haven't won a championship in decades, although some have hope that this season might break that curse.

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