Film on former Knick Nat 'Sweetwater' Clifton a passion project
It was a film 28 years in the making about a story now 73 years old. But for the people involved in “Sweetwater,” the wait was worth it.
Atop that list is director/writer Martin Guigui, who long ago took an interest in former Knick Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton — part of a pioneering first wave of Black NBA players in 1950.
Guigui considered a documentary or book before deciding on a scripted film, which will open at last on April 14, bringing a somewhat forgotten figure to life.
Everett Osborne, a pro player turned actor, stars as Clifton, with Jeremy Piven as Knicks coach Joe Lapchick, himself a key figure in the fight to integrate the NBA.
While the actors have not been at this as long as Guigui has, they embraced the chance to educate while entertaining.
“I think one of the beautiful things about art is you get to illuminate someone's story without being didactic,” Piven told Newsday.
Like Kenny Washington and others who broke the NFL color barrier in that era, Clifton and his fellow NBA trailblazers have been overshadowed by the story of Jackie Robinson in baseball.
That makes sense, because baseball played a far bigger role in post-war culture than pro football or basketball.
But given how far the NBA has come since then, and the role Black players have played in that evolution, the story of Clifton and his contemporaries resonates even more now than it did at the time.
“We love the game of basketball today, but we don't know the reference points of the game we love, and Sweetwater is part of that,” said Osborne, who played collegiately at Division I Texas-Rio Grande Valley and later as a pro in Australia.
“It’s so beautiful that we get to share that with the world.”
Clifton was playing with Abe Saperstein’s Globetrotters when the Knicks signed him. He joined Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd and others in starting the transformation of pro basketball.
The film depicts that struggle, led by Lapchick and eventually backed by Ned Irish, owner of the Knicks and Madison Square Garden.
“Coach Lapchick, he wanted to embrace change at a time when [others] didn’t,” said Piven, best known for playing Ari Gold on the HBO series “Entourage.”
“It’s an honor to play someone who was so passionate about change.”
Lapchick was 6-5, eight inches taller than Piven, and a New York-area guy through and through, while Piven grew up near Chicago (as a Bulls fan).
But Piven tried to channel Lapchick’s spirit.
“I’m not 6-5, but I respect his journey and his passion,” Piven said. “You have to connect with things in you that are similar that you can access to play the role authentically.”
Richard Dreyfuss plays NBA president Maurice Podoloff and Kevin Pollak plays Saperstein, so the film does not lack for name actors.
But in Osborne, Guigui cast an unknown. Osborne had about two weeks to get up to speed as a replacement for the original lead actor.
“He’s this insanely talented, brilliant actor that also happens to be a former professional basketball player,” Piven said. “To have that duality is very rare. It’s definitely the best actor/athlete performance I've ever seen in my life.”
Osborne did all the basketball moves himself — even though in keeping with the period vibe he had to do so wearing Chuck Taylor All-Star Converse sneakers.
“It’s filled with truth and authenticity,” he said. “So when it comes to playing in the Chucks, hey, this is what they did. I have to accept that. I have to allow it and have fun.
“I can't worry if I got blisters on my toes, because that's what they probably went through. That was the fun part of this whole journey.”
Guigui has done a trove of research on Clifton and that era, including interviews with figures now long dead such as Wilt Chamberlain and Red Auerbach. The NBA got behind the effort, too.
But the movie claims only to be “inspired” by real events. Guigui said that requires a balanced approach.
“It’s factual tied to inspirational,” the director said. “The inspirational also comes from the script being a map, a blueprint, a document that we follow when we're making the film.
“Then when these wonderful, incredibly gifted actors bring in all their homework, it becomes inspiration, the traits they bring up, their own experience in life and their take on it. That creates a perfect organic marriage. It’s not a documentary, but it's based on true facts.”
Clifton, a 6-8 forward, grew up in Chicago. He averaged 10.0 points and 8.2 rebounds in eight NBA seasons, the first seven with the Knicks. He died in 1990. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as contributor in 2014.
“Basketball was way more rigid, totally different then,” Osborne said. “But Sweetwater brought the style and flair and ultimately innovation that unlocked human potential — not just for Blacks, but whites and all other players across the country to just enjoy and explore this game.”