Sweetwater: Is it Based on Basketball Player Nathaniel Clifton’s Life?

Helmed by Martin Guigui, ‘Sweetwater’ is a sports drama film that centers upon Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton and his journey from a young boy in New Orleans to a widely recognized NBA player in the 1950s and of the people who made it possible. The film features compelling performances from the talents like Everett Osborne, Jeremy Piven, Richard Dreyfuss, Cary Elwes, and Eric Roberts.

It depicts a very realistic 1940s US, with historically accurate set pieces, costumes, and hairstyles that show the incredible amount of research that went into making ‘Sweetwater.’ But this also makes one wonder exactly why there is such a strong emphasis on accuracy and whether or not it has something to do with the story itself. If you’re curious about the origins of the story and its relation to reality, if any, then you are at the right place. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘Sweetwater!’

How a Radio Broadcast Inspired Sweetwater’s True Tale

Yes, ‘Sweetwater’ is inspired by a true story. It is a film about professional basketball player Nathaniel Clifton, the first African American player to sign with the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the 50s. Directed Martin Guigui, who is also the writer of the story, got the idea for the film while he was listening to NBA playoffs between New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers over the radio in South Burlington, Vermont, while seated in the parking lot of the famous supply store Staples.

In a telephonic conversation with Burlington Free Press, the director spoke about the exact moment the seed of the inspiring tale germinated in his creative mind. When a radio announcer referred to a player as “the only white guy on the court,” Martin said,  “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’?” To pursue his vision, Martin reportedly spent 28 years researching every possible aspect of Nathaniel Clifton’s life.

While several biopics take a few creative liberties here and there – either to embolden certain characteristics of the main character or to fill in the gaps left by a lack of recorded information – ‘Sweetwater’ doesn’t seem to be such a film. Martin scoured through every available record and spoke with living family members of the NBA Hall of Fame player to ensure the historical accuracy of the film.

Nathaniel Clifton was fondly known as Sweetwater amongst his family and friends, likely for his love of soft drinks and calm disposition. However, his journey until the start of his stellar career in the NBA as part of the New York Knicks was not an easy one. Rampant racism and segregationist laws blocked his way time and time again. Nevertheless, with the help of coaches and mentors who believed in his ability to play basketball, Nathaniel was able to overcome these challenges.

Everett Osborne portrays the role of the titular Sweetwater magnificently, with the same mannerism and speech as the late basketball player. “…There’s not a lot of reference I can mention, but there is one clip of him [Nathaniel Clifton] as an older man and I kind of watched that, took some snippets from some dialogue, and then people talk differently when they get older and have dental work done, so I just took that into consideration creatively…” Everett said in an interview with Hollywood First Look on how he built the persona of Clifton for the screen, given the fact that there aren’t many records of the basketball player left.

He added, “…after just observing that world a little bit, and I was able to find the voice, I was able to find the breath. And to the physicality I, uh, took like a four second clip from him on the court, saw how he walked, saw how he sat in a chair and just sown that specific moment and used it as the root to kind of build the tree a little bit.” In the same interview, Cary Elwes, who plays Ned Irish in the film, spoke about why Everett was picked for the role of Clifton. “He’s fabulous, you know, I can’t say enough great things about Everett.”

Image Credit: Oklahoma Historical Society

Cary further added, “We all fell in love with Everett, and he-he is a very easy man to fall in love with. He’s extraordinarily talented, you know. We got to see his audition tape; there were a bunch of actors who obviously wanted this role, and Everett came to the table with not just the heart of the man [Nathaniel Clifton] with his enormous talent that he has, but he’s an extraordinary basketball player! So to have that combination of him, of a young man who not only has the acting chops but could play semi-pro if he felt like it was like…we all watch the tape and we were like ‘Whoa! This is the guy,’ you know.”

He concluded, “I mean we’re-we’re so lucky to get him.” Aside from Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, there were two other African-American basketball players who joined NBA teams at the same time. They were Chuck Cooper with the Celtics and Earl Lloyd with the Washington Capitols, with the latter reportedly becoming the first African American player to play an NBA match. But unlike Cooper and Lloyd, Nathaniel still remains fairly unknown to this day as the first African American to sign an NBA contract. ‘Sweetwater’ hopes to change that fact and bring Nat into the light from the dusty old pages of history.

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