(For the audio version of this blog, please visit: http://brothersinchristcmf.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Mass-Blog-Movie-Review-Extra-Sweetwater.mp3)
I love little movies that reveal themselves as parables. “Sweetwater” is such a film. It’s the tale of how Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton changed the world of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the 40s and 50s. But viewed carefully, we can see our modern world in that historic one.
In those days the NBA was divided more into tribes than teams. Each played by the same common denominator of a code: mediocrity. Mediocrity isn’t a sin unless a higher standard is revealed as attainable. Nat Clifton represented that standard. He was the leader of a black basketball team whose skills as “Harlem Globetrotters” were becoming legendary among fans seeing them in various arenas around the world.
Finally, the coach of the foundering New York Knickerbockers introduces Clifton to the lily-white world of the NBA as a way for them to raise their own standards of play and turn their games into more of an experience. But the leaders of the NBA’s tribes didn’t like this prospect because they were living comfortably in their mediocrity. Nevertheless, “Sweetwater” wins membership in the Knicks’ tribe.
While playing their first game in Madison Square Garden, Clifton demonstrates the level of performance revealed as possible for all NBA players. However, the rule-book-bound officials penalize him for maneuvers they’d never seen and thus deem illegal. The coach and Clifton agree to a new strategy: help his teammates raise their game by opening opportunities for them to score. Thus they learn to live by new standards—of excellence—making them ALL champions.
Gradually those standards were woven into a new set of NBA rules. The contrast between the new standards vs. the old is so stark that it would be deemed a sin for any team stupid enough to fall back into the mediocrity of the old ways. For anyone schooled in the books of the Bible, this parable of a film might inspire them to revisit John’s 15th chapter, in which Jesus tells his disciples:
“If I had not done works among them that no one else ever did, they would not have sin; but as it is, they have seen and hated both me and my Father. … [But] when the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father will testify to me. And you also [will] testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton ended up a cab driver, and this movie begins by his telling his story to a passenger getting into his cab. During the ride we take with this passenger, he is astounded to discover he’s riding with the man who was instrumental in rocking the NBA’s world and raising its standards of play.
The film takes its audience along for this cab ride, and once we’ve reached its destination, we realize that we too not only have the power, but the responsibility to live by a new set of standards. We may not be able to follow “Sweetwater” the superstar into the Basketball Hall of Fame (into which he was inducted in 2014), but we can certainly map out a course similar to that of cab driver Nat Clifton. As depicted in this film, he spent the rest of his life sharing the truths he learned with those sharing their journeys with him. It’s a good roadmap to follow out of humanity’s current state of mediocrity.