A journey that spanned more than two decades reached a joyful moment last month with the release of the film “Sweetwater,” which tells the story of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the second African American player to sign an NBA contract. The film, written and directed by Martin Guigui, covers Clifton’s journey from a star with the Harlem Globetrotters to his historic career with the New York Knicks.
In the mid-1990s, Guigui, an acclaimed musician, composer, and producer, was in his car, listening to a Knicks game on the radio. “The idea just hit me,” he said. “I love stories I’ve never heard about before. I asked myself, ‘Who was the Jackie Robinson of basketball?’”
His research took him to libraries, particularly at Columbia University, which Guigui was told had extensive historical archives related to New York City. On a visit to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, he discovered the 1989 NBA Encyclopedia, which referred to three players: Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Clifton.
“I met with journalist Pete Hamill, who shared a plethora of information related to this story and it kept pointing at the NBA and the team owners battling in the late 1940s to break the color line,” Guigui said. “It also pointed to Joe Lapchick (coach of the Knicks, 1947–56). I did more research and I was able to track down Dr. Richard Lapchick, Joe’s son, and he shared incredible stories. I was a sponge.”
Clifton died in 1990, but Guigui spoke to Lloyd about that time in the early 1950s. Cooper’s widow and son also provided information, as did Clifton’s daughter. “As soon as I had enough material, I felt it was more of a cultural story than a basketball story. That’s when I decided this is meant for cinema,” Guigui said.
He wrote a preliminary treatment in 1996 and the first draft of the script in the early 2000s. The final script went through 62 drafts as the project garnered interest over the past two decades, but it took until 2022 for it to actually be filmed.
Actor Everett Osbourne plays Clifton. In his initial audition tape, he dressed and moved like Clifton. He subsequently proved his acting chops and connection to the role.
“We received hundreds of submissions, including NBA players, former NBA players, and wonderful actors,” Guigui said. “I felt it had to be a physical and a spiritual connection. It had to either be an athlete who had acting chops or a talented actor who could really play basketball. I didn’t want a stand-in or a stunt double…Everett was meant to be.”