‘Sweetwater’ stars Everett Osborne as Nathaniel ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, the 1st African American to sign an NBA contract in 1950. (Photo via Tony Rivetti Jr.)
BURBANK, Calif. —It’s the story of the human spirit, of perseverance, of endlessly saying “yes” when so many said “no.” It demanded tenacity, required resiliency, imposed humility and, in the end, rewarded integrity. One man’s journey, yes, but one that needed boosts and support and love from so many along the way.
The saga of Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton, one of the NBA’s Black pioneers who helped change the face and the style of pro basketball nearly three-quarters of a century ago? Well, yeah, that too.
But it’s also the backstory of “Sweetwater,” the newly released motion picture about Clifton’s life that traveled its own tortuous, bumpy path from inspiration and creative vision to completed production.
“I always knew this story would be told,” Martin Guigui, the director, writer and composer of the film, told NBA.com. “I wasn’t sure I would be chosen, but I felt it was my calling. I had to somehow tell this story to the world.”
Guigui, a native of Argentina, had grown up in Manhattan in the 1960s. His father Efrain, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic and later the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, took him to see the Harlem Globetrotters play at Madison Square Garden. Later, it was to watch the New York Knicks of Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and Earl Monroe.
“I became a freaking fanatic for the history of the game,” Guigui said. “I was a fan of everything Connie Hawkins did. It was just a creative game, something different about it.
“So when I started playing in junior high and high school, I didn’t fit into the system. The coaches would always tell me, ‘You can’t do that on my court.’ I was like, ‘What is he talking about?’”
His coach in small-town Vermont was talking about Guigui’s attempts at “razzle-dazzle,” the term some stodgy characters in “Sweetwater” would sneeringly refer to when talking about “the Negro game.”
Some years later, in April 1996, Guigui took a detour to see a girlfriend while driving to one of his band’s gigs in N.Y. Along the way, he stopped at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. As he explored the museum, he felt that a piece of his favorite team’s history was absent.
There was nothing to be found on Clifton, the first African-American star to be recruited and signed to an NBA contract. With Boston’s Chuck Cooper and Washington’s Earl Lloyd in the 1950-51 season, Clifton integrated professional basketball, doing as a trio with far less fanfare or lasting acclaim what Jackie Robinson had done in baseball three years earlier.
See the official trailer for 'Sweetwater,' which opens on April 14.
Tim Moore, a producer for Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions and the man who finally took on the project, told NBA.com: “The unique thing with this one, even if you ask sports fans ‘Who is the first African-American to play in the NBA?’ they’re not going to tell you. Back then, the college game and the NIT was bigger. The NBA was all on the East Coast, nothing west of the Mississippi.
“That’s our tagline: Sweetwater’s the man who changed the game.”
So the cast, crew and guests who gathered on the Warner Bros. lot Tuesday evening and filled the studio’s theater for the premiere were there as much for a christening as for a movie. Instead of nine months, though, this project’s birth had taken decades.
Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton makes history as the first African American to sign an NBA contract, forever changing how the game is played.
Guigui’s commitment to making film never wavered
Twenty-eight years: Clifton’s age when he helped break his sport’s color line after growing up in Chicago, attending Xavier University in Louisiana, serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, then playing for the all-Black New York Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters (with some summer work as a first baseman for the Chicago American Giants in baseball’s Negro League).
And 28 years: the gap from Guigui’s visit to the Hall of Fame to the nationwide release of the director’s “passion project.”
That might seem fitting, like book ends or something, except for all the work and frustration over the years. For a while, Guigui researched the story for a book proposal on Clifton. Later, a couple of times, he thought of it as a possible documentary. He helped nominate and lobby for Clifton to get inducted into the Naismith Hall in 2014.
Martin’s commitment and passion to making this film has never wavered. We were more than willing to provide our full support because of the significance of this story and what it means not only to the NBA but our broader society.”
— NBA Commissioner Adam Silver
In the meantime, he earned a living in Los Angeles and built a career as a filmmaker and musician, working with the likes of Faye Dunaway, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, Dennis Quaid, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Lady Gaga, David Byrne and dozens more. He got married, raised a family, won awards, and in his spare time took his own razzle-dazzle as a player to the fabled L.A. Entertainment League.
And still, no “Sweetwater.” Oh, and if this all sounds vaguely familiar, I wrote about the project for NBA.com back in January 2010, nearly half of its shelf-life ago:
About five years ago , through various contacts and acquaintances, the NBA got involved. Guigui met with now-deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who directed him to Zelda Spoelstra, dubbed by Guigui as “the gatekeeper of historical accuracy.” A revered longtime employee at NBA headquarters, Spoelstra had been hired in 1951 as commissioner Maurice Podoloff’s administrative assistant. So she’d had a ringside seat to the league’s integration.
“We began working closely on the screenplay,” the writer-director said. “They brought a lot of information to it – my mantra was ‘keep it true’ — and they helped me hone in on that.'”
Silver of course is the league’s commissioner now, promoted in 2014 upon David Stern’s retirement. Guigui considers him a friend without whose support the long wait to bring this film to the screen might have continued. Silver, 60, admitted that even he, as a New Yorker and Knicks fan, for years had scant knowledge of Clifton’s story, as well as Cooper’s and Lloyd’s.
“Martin’s commitment and passion to making this film has never wavered,” Silver told NBA.com. “We were more than willing to provide our full support because of the significance of this story and what it means not only to the NBA but our broader society.”
In the fall of 2019, Guigui pitched the script again to various producers, including Moore. Then COVID-19 hit, with lockdowns shutting down the film industry along with so many others.
Said Guigui: “I remember Adam said, ‘This would probably be a good time to take that out of your drawer. See if you can get that movie made.’ I said, ‘I’m trying.’ Then in the fall of 2021, I got a call from Tim. He said, ‘We’re starting to look at stuff. Why don’t you come in and we’ll talk about it?’”
As Hollywood’s lights flickered back on, Moore had an opening in his schedule. “He said it was all ready to go,” the producer said. “I’m a big, big basketball fan, and always wanted to do a basketball picture. I didn’t know much about Sweetwater, but I liked the script.”
Moore, who worked with Eastwood on films such as “Gran Torino,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “American Sniper” and “Jersey Boys,” met with investors and bumped the budget from $5 million to $8 million. Guigui already had secured a California rebate to subsidize making the movie in-state, and with Moore “calling in some favors,” they were able to shoot right at Warner Bros.
Martin Guigui directs a scene during the filming of “Sweetwater.”
“It’s not too often you’re able to shoot an independent film on a major lot,” he said. “We gave it a studio feel. But he had limits. We couldn’t spend tens of millions of dollars to re-create Madison Square Garden. So you get clever. We got the first three rows for our ‘Madison Square Garden’ on the stage here and the rest are visual effects.
“After that, because it was a period piece, it was about the look. That’s why we went up to Disney Ranch, to give it a feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere. We shot one scene in a barn — a real barn — with the Globetrotters playing there, because they did that then.”
Said Guigui: “This was a hybrid. It was a great balance between the heart that goes into an independent production and the efficiency of the studio machine.”
Over time, as Guigui had rewritten the script an estimated 60 times, he had offered roles or envisioned his cast. Back in 2010, actors such as James Caan (as Knicks owner Ned Irish), Bruce McGill (as NBA boss Maurice Podoloff), Ed Lauter (as New York coach Joe Lapchick), Smokey Robinson (as Sweetwater’s father) and Danny Devito (as Trotters impresario Abe Saperstein) had been mentioned. Richard Dreyfuss, Louis Gossett Jr. Mira Sorvino and Burt Young were other names floated for the TBD project.
Dreyfuss remains, portraying Podoloff. But Cary Elwes plays Irish, Jeremy Piven is the earnest Lapchick and Kevin Pollak is the cantankerous huckster Saperstein. Eric Roberts, Jim Caviezel and Mike Starr are among the other familiar faces in the movie.
“Being able to play Joe Lapchick, who was so instrumental to Sweetwater breaking that barrier, was a gift,” Piven told NBA.com. “He was wildly passionate, and he saw a guy who was worthy of playing in the NBA. I really connected with that.”
Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis Jr. has a small role as Lloyd, Clifton’s and Cooper’s fellow barrier breaker. Meanwhile, rounding up a bunch of fictionalized 1950 NBA players meant finding, Guigui said laughing, “a lot of white guys, not in great shape with no tattoos.” (Got to say, the choice to play George Mikan did the Minneapolis Lakers’ Hall of Fame center dirty, looking a little too plodding and oafish.)
And Clifton? Twenty years ago or so, actor Henry Simmons (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “NYPD Blue”) was the favorite. Then it was Wood Harris, probably best known for his role as Avon Barksdale in “The Wire.”
But Simmons is 52 now. Harris is 53. Guigui needed someone younger. And had to solve the special casting challenge with sports films: Go with an actor who you hope can handle the basketball scenes or find a player who can pass muster as an actor?
Casting for leading role was a slam dunk
Everett Osborne played Division I basketball at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley before pursing an acting career. (Photo via Tony Rivetti Jr.)
If you’ve been watching closely, you might have seen Everett Osborne on film in a basketball role. He appeared in a 2017 Nike commercial, “Want It All,” that featured LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Osborne as a rising young star named “Dante Grand.”
No big shock there: Osborne had played NCAA Division I basketball at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley in the Western Athletic Conference. After graduating in 2016, he played professionally in Australia for a couple seasons. Then he returned home to Los Angeles, focusing on his dream of acting. He made appearances on BET’s “Tyler Perry’s Sistas” and NBC’s “Chicago Fire.”
Both boxes checked, as Guigui soon learned.
“It was a mad dash to find who was going to play Sweetwater,” said the director, recalling the task of sifting through hundreds of submissions with the casting people that included some retired and current NBA players, as well as actors and musical artists.
“This one tape, a guy named Everett had taped himself playing basketball in an empty gym. It almost looked like a vintage gym. He was dressed in a throwback type of uniform. And the style of play he was showing us was similar to how Sweetwater Clifton used to play: the high dribble, the big steps, the leaps into the air, the single-handed dunks. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy has done his homework.’ And he had the look, his haircut.”
Said Osborne: “I went to a court with my uncle, who filmed me in ‘Chuck Taylors’ [sneakers], in little shorts, doing all types of moves. Going up and down the court in three or four dribbles, making cuts, dunking the ball. … I didn’t want any doubles, I wanted them to use every bit of me being Sweetwater.”
The 29-year-old also taped a dramatic reading that was equally important. “He had the authenticity, the vernacular, the tone of his voice,” said Guigui, saying Osborne carried himself in a way reminiscent of a “young Sidney Poitier.” “Plus he’s 6-foot-4, so we weren’t going to have to cheat on his height. And the way he played basketball, it was almost as if he were delivered on a platter by guardian angels.”
Growing up, Osborne’s grandfather had taken him to Staples Center to see Kobe, Shaq and the three-peat Lakers. He was at that house last year when he got the call telling him he’d be Sweetwater.
“It was a full circle moment,” Osborne said. “Kobe hitting a game-winner.”
Piven has a goose-bumpy moment in the movie, trying as Lapchick to woo Clifton to the Knicks. The player scoffs, mentioning the NBA’s all-white rosters. Piven leans in and says: “It’s not going to be like that forever.”
“Because of Everett’s ability, we could have done all the basketball scenes in one take,” said Piven, the star of “Entourage” and a hundred other roles. “We’re playing those sequences in real time, I’m coaching in the background and we just let it roll. He’s an absolute superstar and this is his coming-out party.”
Said the Bucks’ Portis: “He’s going to be a big-time actor. It just takes that one movie to get your career off, just like it takes that one playoff series to get your basketball career off as well.”
All-Star cast delivers authentic performances
Richard Dreyfuss (left), Cary Elwes and Everett Osborne act out a scene in “Sweetwater,” which debuts on April 14. (Photo via Tony Rivetti Jr.)
The sudden greenlighting of the production took most of the cast and crew by surprise, Guigui said.
“When I called these guys and said, ‘We’re making the movie,’ Dreyfuss in particular was like, ‘Are you sure?’ I said yes and he said, ‘Sure. Sure, you’re sure.’ He didn’t really believe it until the week before shooting. I called him and said, ‘Richard, you start filming Monday. In five days I need you on the set.’ He put his wife on the phone to see if I was telling the truth.”
Some had hung in there with “Sweetwater” from its conception. Others were more recent converts. Most were eager to shepherd the project home, with the resources of Warner Bros. easing the way.
“It was magical on set, because everybody was very specific and laser-focused on authenticity,” Guigui said. “On truth and on replicating not only visually but aesthetically, grammatically how people spoke. There was an eloquence back then. People would go to the Garden dressed up to the nines – it was like going to the opera.
“With thousands of extras and recreating the Garden, I remember our prop master stopped one of my shots because he ran out to the crowd and pulled a modern wristwatch off one man and gave him a period-piece watch. That was the spirit.”
The movie touches all the expected bases, with flashbacks to Clifton’s youth, and gives weight both to the on-court and off-court discrimination he and other Blacks faced in that era. Teammates were supportive, whether Globetrotters or Knicks.
This movie is a cathartic experience too. There is some sense of cultural healing that you get when you walk away from this film that is not so much about civil rights or racism, it’s about encouraging change.”
— Director Martin Guigui, on “Sweetwater”
The performances are strong, from Osborne as the lead and Pollak, Piven and Dreyfuss as reliable pros to solid support work from the likes of Roberts (in a thankless bigot role), Starr and Caviezel (perfectly cast, of course, as a sportswriter).
One challenge in telling the 1950 story was putting it in front of a 2023 audience. The use of “Negro” is jarring enough, and the inevitable dropping of the “n-word” to reflect reality back then will have some viewers flinching.
“There’s a lot of edge in the truth, as far as how it reflects American history,” the director said. “This was not specific to basketball in 1950, this is how that time was. The audience is much more prepared for it now than years back.”
Kiki VanDeWeghe, former NBA star who spent eight years as the league’s executive VP of basketball operations, attended the premiere Tuesday with his brother Bruk and Rick Darnell, a one-time ABA Virginia Squires big man who oversees the National Basketball Retired Players Association’s Los Angeles chapter. The VanDeWeghes’ father, Ernie, who played with the Knicks for six years, roomed with Clifton.
“It’s a wonderful message,” the former NBA exec said. “A lot more people are going to know now.”
The basketball scenes hold up, giving a true sense that Clifton’s game begat Elgin Baylor’s, which led stylistically to Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and so many modern players. Creativity merged with competition.
Over the end credits, we get black-and-white photos of the principals portrayed in the film with a few clips of Clifton in action. There also is a video clip from late in his life when he was driving a taxi in Chicago. He exudes joy, pride and appreciation for getting the opportunity to use his talents and earn a living in a sport he loved.
“This movie is a cathartic experience too,” Guigui said. “There is some sense of cultural healing that you get when you walk away from this film that is not so much about civil rights or racism, it’s about encouraging change.”
The first moment Clifton steps on the court as a member of the Knicks is played for extra drama. Guigui gets to experience that as moviegoers step into theaters today.
“There was a time when I lost sleep worrying the film never would get made,” he said. “Now I’m losing sleep because I’m so excited that it did get made.”
* * *
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail himhere, findhis archive hereandfollow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.
Is Sweetwater the movie based on a true story? ›
"Sweetwater" from writer-director Martin Guigui tells the powerful true story of Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton, a naturally gifted and talented basketball player who was among the first Black men to play in the National Basketball Association.How long is Sweetwater movie? › Who owns the Sweetwater in Mill Valley? ›
Becky and Thom Steere, the owners of Sweetwater in Mill Valley began operating the 100-seat cabaret-dinner theater Larkspur Cafe Theatre on July 1, 2007.Why does Sweetwater give candy? ›
For years, Sweetwater Sound has been packing handfuls of candy into boxes full of music technology and music instruments that are shipped all over the country. Little did they know that this little "thank you" to customers would one day help save a life.How long is the longest movie ever filmed? ›
The 85-hour experimental film was directed by John Henry Timmis IV. It was played in its entirety Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, 1987 at the The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, according to Guinness World Records.How long is the shortest movie? ›
The shortest feature film classified is called Soldier Boy and is just seven seconds long. The story is about a couple that gets separated due to WW2.What was filmed at Sweetwater Creek? ›
In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) and Liam Hemsworth's (Gale's) characters had an intimate conversation at the New Manchester Mill Ruins. Many of the scenes for John Travolta's Killing Season were also filmed at Sweetwater Creek State Park.How much was Sweetwater bought for? ›
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|Products||Musical Instruments, Pro Audio, Lighting, and accessories|
|Revenue||$1.57 Billion (2022)|
|Owner||Providence Equity (2021-present)|
|Number of employees||2,300|
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Sweetwater is headquartered in Fort Wayne, IN and has 10 office locations located throughout the US. See if Sweetwater is hiring near you.
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Answer and Explanation: When Candy lost his hand while working, he was given $250 from the boss. He also has another $50 in the bank saved from his paychecks. Therefore, he currently has $300.Who is Dave from Sweetwater? ›
An independent recording artist, performer, music teacher, and student, Dave Latchaw has played professionally for over 40 years and taught for over 35 years. He has a degree in music education from Indiana University and studied jazz performance at Berklee School of Music.Why does candy feel happy? ›
Because sugar releases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, the part of your brain linked to reward, novelty and motivation. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that plays a key role in controlling emotional responses.What movie took the most money to make? ›
3 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) – $379M
For years the most expensive movie of all time was believed to be Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides — the only Pirates movie to near a $400 million budget.
|Film||Release year||Number of years|
|The Tragedy of Man||2011||23|
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The first comedy film was L'Arroseur Arrosé (1895), directed and produced by film pioneer Louis Lumière. Less than 60 seconds long, it shows a boy playing a prank on a gardener. The most noted comedy actors of the silent film era (1895-1927) were Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton.What is the shortest Disney film? ›
Saludos Amigos was popular enough that Walt Disney decided to make another film about Latin America, The Three Caballeros, to be produced two years later. At 42 minutes, it is Disney's shortest animated feature to date.Can you swim in Sweetwater Creek? ›
The 215 acre George Sparks Reservoir is popular for fishing and provides a pretty setting for feeding ducks and picnicking. However, there is no beach and swimming in the Reservoir is not allowed. Fishing supplies are available in the adjacent bait shop.What river was Gunsmoke the River filmed? ›
Kern River Valley, California, USA.
What movies are based on Sweetwater TX? ›
- Fly Like a Girl (2019) 84 min | Documentary. ...
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Chuck Surack is an American entrepreneur, businessman, philanthropist, and musician, best known as the founder of Sweetwater Sound, a leading retailer of musical instruments and professional audio equipment.Where is Sweetwater based out of? ›
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Sweetwater is the center of the leading wind power generation region of the Western Hemisphere. It is sometimes called the "Wind Turbine Capital of Texas". The largest wind farm in Texas is Roscoe Wind Farm.What was filmed at Sweetwater Creek State Park? ›
In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) and Liam Hemsworth's (Gale's) characters had an intimate conversation at the New Manchester Mill Ruins. Many of the scenes for John Travolta's Killing Season were also filmed at Sweetwater Creek State Park.What movies were filmed at Sweetwater Creek State Park? ›
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) PG-13 | 146 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi. ...
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- Walking (I) (2016) ...
- Mazik (2004)
- Road to Perdition (2002) R | 117 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller. ...
- Why Him? (2016) R | 111 min | Comedy. ...
- Hardcore (1979) ...
- WWE Raw (1993– ) ...
- 30 Minutes or Less (2011) ...
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For Surack, who's now 62, taking care of his employees goes well beyond just signing their paychecks.How much is Sweetwater worth? ›
|Products||Musical Instruments, Pro Audio, Lighting, and accessories|
|Revenue||$1.57 Billion (2022)|
|Owner||Providence Equity (2021-present)|
|Number of employees||2,300|
How owns Sweetwater? ›
On November 4th, 2020, Aphria Inc., a large producer of cannabis based in Canada, acquired SweetWater for $300 million.What is the meaning of Sweetwater? ›
Definition of 'sweetwater'
1. a variety of white grape with a sweet flavour. adjective. 2. living in fresh water.
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Originally called Sweetwater, the name of the town was later changed to Mobeetie, thought to be the Indian name for sweet water. Noted figures that visited the town included Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett and Texas Ranger and ranching pioneer, Charles Goodnight.