Apr 24, 2023 - Things to Do

New film "Sweetwater" tells a great Chicago story

Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment

A new film about one of the NBA's first Black players, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, is playing in selected theaters in the U.S.

Why it matters here: "Sweetwater" tells an important, but often overlooked, story about how one Chicagoan played a pivotal role in changing basketball forever.

Details: The movie stars Richard Dreyfuss, Kevin Pollak, Jeremy Piven and Everett Osborne, who plays the title role.

What they're saying: "Sweetwater was the key to the innovative game we love today," Osborne tells Axios.

  • "It's miraculous to see how one man's journey to challenge limitations and break through personal barriers has become an immortal triumph for a universal sport like the game of basketball."

The backstory: Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Clifton played high school basketball at Chicago's DuSable High School in the 1940s.

  • He went on to become a star with the famed Harlem Globetrotters. But they weren't in the NBA, which at the time didn't allow Black players.
  • In 1950, the New York Knickerbockers brought Clifton in to change that.

Context: Clifton was technically the second Black player to play in the league, after Earl Lloyd (played by former Bulls player Bobby Portis). Lloyd started four days before him.

  • Clifton played eight seasons in the NBA with the Knicks and the Pistons.
  • After his NBA career, he came back to Chicago to drive a taxi. He died in 1990.

How to watch: The film is being screened tonight in Oak Park and tomorrow in Highland Park. Each showing will be followed by a Q&A with Osborne.

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