April 15, 2023

‘Sweetwater’ brings memories of Nat Clifton, NBA integration, my father’s role

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I recently attended the world premiere of the movie “Sweetwater” with my wife, Ann, children Joe and Chamy and her husband, Michael. We thought it would be great, we hoped it would be great, and it exceeded our expectations. Everett Osborne, the actor who plays Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, is outstanding. Jeremy Piven does a remarkable job portraying my father’s personality and his courage. Dahlia Waingort Guigui plays my mother. Seeing my parents portrayed on the big screen was so emotional. I had cried through an at-home preview last week, and the tears of joy flowed freely again. Both times I held Ann’s hand with a tight grip throughout the movie.

Before seeing “Sweetwater,” I was concerned about how my dad, Joe Lapchick, would be portrayed. The issue of segregation was so explosive. My definition of a leader comes from my father, who always told me that “a leader is someone who stands up for justice and doesn’t block its path.” That is exactly how Piven comes off as my dad — a leader standing up for justice. He was the loudest and sometimes seemingly the only voice calling for the integration of the NBA.

We were able to speak with Martin Guigui, the director, and Piven after watching it at home last week. We told them how much we loved it and you could tell it meant a great deal to them. It was such a treat to see Dahlia Waingort Guigui, an accomplished actor, producer, COO and an executive vice president at Sunset Pictures, as my mom, encouraging my father to climb the mountain and challenge racism in signing Sweetwater when the NBA board of governors voted not to draft any “negroes.” It was great to see her in the movie. And even a little Richie appeared as a 5-year-old.

And, of course, it brought back many memories, so many emotions. I was lucky enough to meet Clifton when he played for my dad while I was growing up. I remember the circumstances portrayed in the movie because I was in some small way part of it, while not really understanding what was going on.

The movie vividly tells the story of Clifton’s life, moving from the South, where his family worked in the cotton fields in Arkansas, to Chicago so he would have more opportunities growing up. After serving in the U.S. Army and fighting in Europe during World War II, he became a dominant player with the Harlem Globetrotters (1948-1950). The movie dramatically portrays the pain of racism and segregation. (The film is scheduled to be released by Briarcliff Entertainment on Friday.)

When I saw the previews and that Piven was playing my dad, I was slightly puzzled because my dad was 6-foot-5 and the first great big man in basketball when he played for the Original Celtics in the 1920s and 1930s.

Piven is 5-9. When we spoke on the phone last week, I praised his incredible capturing of my father. He replied, yes, “But I’m sorry I am so short.” To which I said, “Me too.” I was 6 feet in eighth grade and a good big man in New York City basketball circles and was heavily recruited for high school, but I ended up not growing another inch and became a slow guard by the time I got to college.

It was a labor of love for director Guigui over the 28 years it took to put the movie together. When I asked Martin to share his vision of the film with me, he wrote:

“The realization of the film combined my love of hoops, and my fascination with stories that inspire the triumph of the human spirit. I come from a DNA that yearns to give and make a difference. Growing up as a kid in New York City, on special occasions like birthdays and holidays, my dad would take me to Madison Square Garden, which is where I first saw the Knicks play. That particular team was coached by Red Holzman and sported the likes of Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier and Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe. Both exemplified a creative, innovative ground-breaking style of play, which I deeply identified with to the core. I saw the art in basketball manifested by the way players were moving fearlessly, creating a new game with every move.

“I adopted that game, and became proficient in it. The insightful incident and inner connective tissue that planted the seed that would eventually marry me to the Sweetwater story occurred when I brought a creative style of play to my high school basketball team … and my basketball coach was not going to have it. I got a sense, then, of how players in Sweetwater’s era felt as they subjugated creativity to work within the system. The game needed to evolve, which is what Sweetwater brought, and that was my impetus to tell the story.

“As I researched the story, I deeply identified with Knick coach Joe Lapchick, and his fierce dedication to breaking barriers, the concept of change, being open to change, which is ever so relevant now in what we are experiencing as a global culture. We’ve come a long way, yet we still have a way to go.

“From the moment I bumped into the ‘Sweetwater’ story, I’ve always known it is a big part of my true purpose. … To have a positive impact and make a difference.”

I remember looking out my bedroom window as a 5-year-old boy in Yonkers, New York, and seeing my father’s image swinging from a tree. There were people under the tree picketing because, as coach of the New York Knicks, he’d signed the first Black man — Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton — to play for the team. After that, for years I would silently answer the phone at our house without my dad knowing I was listening, and I heard people calling him racial epithets. I didn’t know or understand what any of it meant, but I knew people didn’t like my father, who was my best friend.

I learned things from the film. Deep into my adulthood, I began to read that Earl Lloyd was the first Black player to play in an NBA game and that he and Chuck Cooper entered the NBA at the same time as Clifton. The NBA board of governors decided that no team would draft a Black player. Shortly after my dad signed Clifton, the board of governors met and approved drafting Cooper and Lloyd. That was possible because Clifton had broken the ground.

The part about Lloyd playing in the first game was also clarified. It turned out that Maurice Podoloff, then the NBA commissioner, moved the game in Rochester up a day so that the first Black player to play in an NBA game would not happen in New York City, where he apparently feared unrest. It was always intended that Clifton would be the first to play in an NBA game as well as being the first to sign. Podoloff didn’t let that happen.

Osborne does an amazing job playing Clifton. He makes the sting of racism be felt by the audience. He bristles at the way Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, exploited his players, including Clifton. When Joe Lapchick tells Clifton that he might play in the NBA, Clifton responds convincingly that is not possible because it’s an all-white league.

“Sweetwater” shows how referees tried to take away Clifton’s game by making ridiculous calls against him; how my dad had to take him out of his first game after starting him not because he wasn’t playing well but because referees were being horrible and calling fouls, seemingly in an attempt to get him out of the game.

As many readers know, I am the author of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s Racial and Gender Report Cards, documenting the racial hiring practices of the major pro sports, college sports and the sports media. It gives me pride that every year among the men’s sports, the NBA is far ahead of everyone else employing women and people of color as well as supporting athlete activism.

It makes me proud that my dad and Clifton began that process nearly three-quarters of a century ago. Clifton drove a cab in Chicago in the last part of his life. Each time I flew there, I hoped his cab would pick me up. It finally happened. We pulled over and spoke for three hours. I told him how much my father appreciated his courage and his gratitude that he helped the Knicks into the NBA finals for three consecutive years. He told me how grateful he was that my father had the courage to sign him.

For decades, I have thought that “Hoop Dreams” was the best sports movie ever made. For me, as great as it was, it is now second to “Sweetwater.” As the son of Joe Lapchick, I thank Martin Guigui, Everett Osborne, Jeremy Piven, Dahlia Waingort Guigui and the entire cast and crew of the film for their contributions in helping the world know more clearly what my dad and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton did so many years ago.

Richard E. Lapchick is the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.

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