NEW ORLEANS — Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton, a Xavier University of Louisiana standout in the 1940s and an NBA pioneer nearly 60 years ago, will be inducted Friday into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass.
Clifton, selected as a contributor to the sport, is the first from Xavier to earn induction. He is one of 10 inductees this year.
A right-handed power forward listed from 6-feet-6 to 6-9 on various online sites, Clifton was one of a handful of African-Americans to integrate the NBA in the 1950-51 season. Clifton scored 16 points for the New York Knicks in his NBA debut on Nov. 4, 1950 — he was 28 years old at the time — and played eight seasons in the league, all but one with the Knicks.
In 544 NBA games, Clifton averaged 10.0 points and 8.2 rebounds. He averaged a double-double in his second and third seasons — 10.6 points and 11.8 rebounds in 1951-52, 10.6 and 11.3 rebounds in 1952-53 — and averaged a career-best 13.1 points in 1954-55. He was a member of NBA runner-up teams each of his first three seasons.
Clifton's lone NBA All-Star Game appearance was in 1957. He scored eight points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 23 minutes and still holds the record for the oldest first-time participant: 34 years and 94 days.
"He was still a showman when I got to the league," said Richie Guerin, a 2013 Hall of Fame inductee and a rookie teammate of Clifton in 1956-57. "Sweets did everything with a flair. He had a nice outside shot for a big man. He was a good rebounder. He was a terrific guy and a friend. Sweets and other veterans like Carl Braun and Dick McGuire went out of their way to make me feel welcome."
Clifton was a standout player in Chicago at DuSable High School and enrolled at Xavier in the fall of 1942. He spent just one academic year at Xavier before enrolling in the Army during World War II. But his basketball impact at XU was great. Clifton led the Gold Rush in 1942-43 to a 15-3 record, including 11 double-digit victories, and a berth in the championship game of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament, where Xavier lost 43-42 to South Carolina State. His Xavier statistics are spotty, but the school newspaper, the Xavier Herald, said Clifton scored 42 points against Benedict and 24 in another game. His 21 made field goals against Benedict still are a school record.
Clifton was born Oct. 13, 1922, in Little Rock, Ark. — he earned his nickname as a child because he loved soft drinks — and died Aug. 31, 1990, in Chicago. Wright, one of two known living players from the 1942-43 Xavier team — Irving Ward is the other — was a pallbearer at Clifton's funeral.
Meadowlark Lemon, the longtime "Clown Prince" of the Globetrotters and a 2003 Hall of Fame inductee, will be Clifton's presenter at Friday's ceremony at Springfield Symphony Hall. Clifton's daughter, JaTuan, will accept the honor on behalf of her father.
Clifton's arrival in the NBA will be portrayed in the cinema in "Sweetwater," with Wood Harris in the title role. The movie is scheduled for release in 2015.