Previous ArticlesNet effect of Bulls win is leaving the Nets to fret
Hall of Fame calls Chicago’s Nat Clifton and Guy Rodgers
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 14
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
It was one of the great rides of my life, and it was in a Chicago taxi. It was just about 30 years ago and I spent the day with one of the great Chicago athletes of all time, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who not only was one of the great pioneers of the NBA as one of its first black players, but also good enough that he’d have been able to play in the major leagues if not for the limitations against black athletes.
“I’ve been fortunate in my life,” the Du Sable High School product told me back then. “I played hard and liked what I did and got to see a lot of places that most people never even hear of.”
And Friday Clifton—whose real name actually was Clifton Nathaniel but changed by Chicago prep sportswriters who said Nathaniel was too long to put in the newspapers—reached basketball immortality when he was among five named for enshrinement in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014.
Sweetwater died in 1990 after many years cruising up and down Michigan Avenue in his yellow cab following his long sports career. But he’s still remembered fondly by the greats of the game, like Hall of Famer Bob Pettit, who was at the announcement at All-Star weekend in New Orleans.
“He was a heck of a player and heck of a good guy,” said Pettit, who defended Sweets, as he was known, back in those days. “He was a tough guy, but a really good guy. You didn’t mess around with him. It was, ‘Yes, Mr. Clifton.’”
The Hall of Fame Friday announced five so called “direct elects” to the Hall of Fame along with naming the 10 finalists. Those selected among the finalists will be revealed at the Final Four in April.
The direct elects by various committees were Clifton, former Bulls guard Guy Rodgers, recently retired NBA commissioner David Stern, ABA coach and Pacers’ broadcaster Bob “Slick” Leonard and international star Sarunas Marciulionis.
The finalists include Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Alonzo Mourning, Spencer Haywood, Kevin Johnson and coaches Nolan Richardson, Eddie Sutton and Gary Williams.
Rodgers was a pioneer in some respects, as well, as the first Bulls All-Star in 1967 along with Jerry Sloan. Rodgers, who also played for the Warriors, Royals and Bucks, remains one of the great ballhandlers and passers in NBA history. He still holds the Bulls franchise record for most assists in a season, set in the team’s first year, along with the franchise record for assists in a game at 24 and in a half with 13.
“He was a great player,” said former Bull Chet Walker. “Maybe better than (Bob) Cousy. He never got his proper due, but this was well deserved.”
Added Hall of Famer Rick Barry, who played with Rodgers: “He was a heck of a ball handler and passer. I figured out if I can run and get open, he loves to gets assists and I’m going to get a lot of baskets. And that’s exactly what happened. Guy played the position the way most point guards played then. Not a scoring point guard that has come into vogue.
“He was the guy out there to get assists,” said Barry. “That was his job, to get easy opportunities for teammates. That’s the kind of point guard I like. He played the game like Steve Nash, who I love to watch play. You hustle and bust your butt and he’ll find a way to get you the ball. It’s nice to see veterans recognized. I wish he were here, though. I’m tired of going to these events and having guys recognized posthumously.”
Similarly for Sweetwater, who said he got his name for his love of Pepsi Colas that his teammates called him “Sweetwater.” What an endorsement contract he’d get in this era.
But during that memorable day for me riding around Chicago with Sweets picking up fares, he said he wasn’t the least bit bitter about having missed the big money era of sports or even some of his best years in the major leagues because of the discrimination at the time.
“I’m glad for them,” Clifton told me. “I know that means they won’t have to go through the problems I’m going through. But I don’t have any animosity. Life is short, and you can’t brood over things that happened. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I had this and that. But I tell you, if I had all that money, I’d be paying somebody else to do all the things I should be doing.”
Sweetwater played basketball and baseball at Du Sable and also was one of the great 16-inch softball players. He then served in the Army for three years in World War II. After the war, he played for the all black New York Rens and Harlem Globetrotters. He also played for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro League. Bill Veeck gave him a shot in the Indians’ minor leagues. He was among the league leaders for two years, but by then too old to be a prospect. He became at age 27 the second black man to play in the NBA in 1950 because Earl Lloyd’s team opened first. He led the Knicks to the Finals his first three seasons and a seventh game loss his first season. He was Carmelo Anthony with success.
He finished up his career with the Detroit Pistons and in the rival ABL in 1962 and returned to Chicago to go to work driving a cab.
“Sweets really helped make us a winner,” teammate Ray Lumpp told me back then. “He could also handle that ball (and) he was our big man. There were some cities, especially Baltimore and Indianapolis, where he couldn’t stay with us. It was very difficult when we’d have to drop him off. But he never let it bother him.”
“By being a Globetrotter, I knew the places to stay and the people liked me from seeing me play,” Clifton told me then. “I’d just tell (coach Joe) Lapchick I’d make my own arrangements and give him the bill later. It was probably cheaper for the team anyway, so he didn’t mind.”
Though Clifton was no pushover. Teammate Vince Boryla, a former Nuggets president, told me a great story back then. He recalled a game with Boston when Bob Harris was leaning on and taking cheap shots at Clifton. Words were exchanged and Sweets took care of the situation.
“Sweets was just such a mild-mannered guy,” Boryla said. “That was the only time I ever saw him in a fight. But Sweets hit him and knocked him out cold. The whole Boston bench jumps up and starts out onto the court and Sweets turns around with his hands up, like he’s saying, ‘Come on.’ They all stopped like they hit a glass wall.”
“I never got a chance to do what I wanted to do because of the system,” Clifton told me then without rancor. “The teams that had blacks only had one, and you either went along with the program or were out. They didn’t want me to do much scoring, so they didn’t have any plays for me. I was just supposed to rebound and play defense.
“I guess I’ve had a good life,” Clifton told me as we were departing late in the day. “I can’t complain.”
He was a true Hall of Famer. And now he is one officially.