Sweetwater: Changing the Game of Basketball
He changed the game of basketball, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the first African American to land an NBA contract. Everett Osborne stars as the title character in the drama Sweetwater.
The film follows Clifton, who is the star attraction of the Harlem Globetrotters, when New York Knicks executive Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) and Knicks coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven) decide it is time for the Knicks to integrate, with the support of NBA President Maurice Podoloff (Richard Dreyfuss), they come together with the other team owners of the league to make history.
Risen sat down with star Everett Osborne and producer Darren Moorman to talk about this true story, basketball and the universal themes.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: I love all the stories that we hear about basketball through college and the NBA, and of course this is a pivotal one. So Darren, maybe why don’t you start off and set up kind of the story of Sweetwater.
Darren Moorman: Everybody knows the Jackie Robinson story, but you start to ask around “who’s the first African American black NBA player that dominates the world?” And no one knew the answer. And so writer/director Martin got connected with me… he had been working on it [the story] for so long, and I’m a sports guy. I had coached high school basketball, my boys play basketball, and then we had the biggest challenge in the world – to figure out who in the world can play Sweetwater. The NBA is our partner, so we have to have an athlete that can actually play and we have to have an actor, and so that brings us to Everett, who I want to share all kind of stories about, but he’s just amazing and when I met him, I knew, and Everett was gracious enough to come and play Sweetwater and played him so beautifully.
RM: Everett, talk to me about that, because you are a very unique individual — I’m sure for many reasons — but definitely for acting and basketball blend. I mean, having played professionally and then also having a love and actual career within the [media] field. Talk to me a little bit about how those two finally came together.
Everett Osborne: It was definitely a dream come true. I mean, I couldn’t even map this out. I mean, I’ve been playing ball since the age of four, but then I’ve also been acting since the age of four. So this was just the stars aligned. I just got back from playing professional [basketball] in Australia a few years before this script came to me. So I’ve been in professional mode like Darren said, I mean, and it’s so beautiful hearing the passion from Darren as a producer, you just hear the passion that this man has. And I mean, I stem down from the top all the way to the bottom. It’s been such a passion project, which it deserves, right? It’s the story we haven’t heard. So, to be able to get this script and to dive in as the actor, and this is before I even knew the other side.
I just saw the script and I was like, “wow, this is amazing.” I’ve never heard this story and I played basketball, right? So as an actor it was written well, as you said. They requested for me the basketball side, they wanted to see my basketball skills. So I set-up shop, put it [my acting] on tape, and then I’d go drive to a gym and let go of the actor and then become the athlete, it was like the two-headed monster was finally able to exist. And it was just so beautiful. So I can’t even tell you what it was like to fully be able to express fully being an actor and an athlete. The gift of Sweetwater, you know, to dive in and tell his story with this amazing team. It was definitely an honor.
DM: I got to tell you, so we didn’t know Everett. We obviously, and our casting director, we were looking at everybody. We had a lot of people that wanted to play the role that were, you know, I’d say more famous actors than Everett, but we didn’t feel like they probably had the athletic ability to portray Sweetwater and to be an NBA star. And so Everett sent his self-tape in and I’m sitting on the couch and literally going through hundreds of self-tapes, because you can imagine how many people would love to play this role, and Everett sent his in, and it was really fascinating. He was, first of all, he was in Converse, like he should have been, short shorts, no shirt, and like, he just sort of took us to that era. And then he went from basketball to acting like, we got to meet this guy. So we sort of knew off the audition, he was it, but we had to meet him in person. And then we had to talk to the financiers about, “hey, we’re going to put a no-name here to do this role.” But we couldn’t have picked anybody better. He was Sweetwater for us.
RM: Yeah, you did an excellent job, and even getting into the mindset of him. I have been to a Harlem Globetrotter game before, I had played basketball but I didn’t understand how much the game was really changed at this point in history. I mean, the whole extension of the three pointers, not knowing what a slam dunk was, talk to me about as a basketball player, going back and having to say, wow, I can’t believe the game was at this point at one time, and then not too far back in history.
EO: It was definitely a rollercoaster ride. Right, I mean, I’ve invested so much into the sport and I mean, I think that’s the beautiful part about being an actor, right. I mean, for me, I have the opportunity to let go of Everett and step into a new world as you talked about getting into the mind. So, I had to get into the world of Sweetwater and that also came along with learning basketball from a new way, absorbing that world. And I just dove straight in. I act like I’ve never seen the game before. Obviously I had experience, but I couldn’t bring my experience to Sweetwater cause that’s not serving the character the right way. So it was just a beautiful moment. I almost felt like a baby again, learning basketball, understanding the genesis of this game that we all love that has influenced generations and generations to come.
So just learning the business aspect, as you said, learning the Harlem Globetrotters would play their games in the arena first, and pack the stands out because the NBA wasn’t big… and the NBA would sneak in and play after to keep the fans so they can hopefully watch them play too. It’s like, wow, you never thought this was what it was before. And seeing how rigid they played and they weren’t so fluid and fun looking. And so much creativity that Sweetwater ended up bringing to the game. I’m just like, wow. It was a huge history lesson. So it was fun for me to learn about it.
RM: And Darren, talk to me about, I liked seeing the inner turmoil amongst kind of the administration, your Richard Dreyfus, your Cary [Elwes], your Jeremy Piven, as they’re trying to advance the game, but not sure if they should or shouldn’t. I mean, talk to me a little bit about taking risks, stepping out in faith, those bigger, broader themes that we can gather from this movie, even though it is about a sport and a time in history.
DM: I was excited about this story because I think the key in all of history is eventually people stepping up and doing the right thing. And that’s what this was, it was a moment in history where a couple of guys had a chance to step up and do the right thing, and they had to face all of the peer pressure, all of the pressure of the media and everything that was happening at that time, and our actors are so amazing, but they dove in and accepted that. And I love the Cary Elwes character because he was playing both sides of it, and he wasn’t sure where he was going to go. He was a very conflicted character. And obviously Piven. Piven was amazing and he was all in from the get-go. And of course, Richard Dreyfus is Richard Dreyfus, that’s all you have to say.
RM: Everett, I love where your character is talking about the change… it isn’t that you’re going to see an African American on the basketball court, the change for me is that the game of basketball is going to be true to what the game is and can be. Talk to me a little bit about people stepping into and being all that they can be. It kept going back to the hands, the hands that your mom had told you you’re going to make a difference with and speaking affirmation over others and so forth.
EO: Yeah, so beautifully said. I mean, it talks about the man who changed the game. So we’re talking about the game of basketball, but as you said, this is a universal story. So we’re not just talking about the game of basketball, it’s a game of life. And there’s a lot of different systems that’s compartmentalized through this huge game of life. So when you look at these systems, whether it be basketball, whether it be the workforce, I mean, as you see the industry that we’re in now, I mean, you’re looking at all these systems going on and change is inevitable. And you’re looking at the human beings within it, like Sweetwater, he looked back to his hands. I was referring to what he’s heard from the past from his mom about having a higher purpose. And that’s something we all innately feel like we have, we don’t know for sure what it is, but we know that something deep inside it, but there’s some higher truth to life that we’re all searching for, which I think is the faith element to this, right?
It’s like believing in the unseen. Okay, yeah, we’ve had, this system has been in place, this game, of basketball has been in place like this, but I feel and I can see it going into a different way. And what does that look like? The truth is it’s scary. The truth is it’s very uncomfortable. The truth is the unknown is very frightening for a lot of us. But I heard a quote and it said that “the unknown is the only path to freedom”. And that’s where we have to step in and to embrace the unknown and believe that we are destined for something and follow that north star, and it takes a collective group. Like he said, it takes the Richard Dreyfus, Cary, Jeremy — I mean, Ned Irish, right? Kevin, all these guys that step in and played roles to help Sweetwater break change. I mean, he felt innately through faith that there was a higher purpose, and then other people around him felt that too and then you get to see the journey of what that looks like of people being uncomfortable and finally birthing the change that has influenced this world and this whole generation to come and the game of basketball. So, I think it’s a beautiful journey, and I felt good going through it as well, and it highlighted my own personal life and stories that I think we see in the world right now.
DM: When I met Everett, I knew there was something about Everett that was just amazing. And we offered him the role, and on day one of the set, he was in hair and makeup and here he is, he’s going to lead this movie. And it was a big movie at Warner Brothers. And so I walked in and he’s in hair and makeup and all the other actors are in there. And I just asked him, I said, “Hey, yeah, I’m just curious, what’s it been like for you to go through this process? What’s your process leading up to this?” And he so wisely looked up at me from the makeup chair, I don’t know if you remember this, and he said, “well, what’s your process been?” And he turned it on me, and we hadn’t had any personal conversations about faith or anything like that. And I said, well, to be honest, my process has been praying for you. And I felt like it sort of broke the room a little bit in a beautiful way. Hair and makeup people looking up at me like, oh, there’s something different going on here. And Everett walked over to set on day one, and I got to pray over him. It was just, what I view as a beautiful friendship that started around this character Sweetwater.